City Councillors | Wasteful Spending?
One of the most interesting resources published on the City of Toronto’s website is a detailed listing of councillor’s expense reports. Councillors are given a fixed annual budget each year ($30,815.40 in 2014), details of their spending (and reciepts) can be found at this link.
The data can’t be downloaded in spreadsheet form, and it can be time consuming to look through all of the reports, but there’s a lot of interesting information to explore. A wise old audit partner once told me the quickest way to judge a person’s character is by auditing their expense reports- following his advice, I began digging to see what I could discover.
The one red flag that immediately jumped-out for me was how city councillors are individually responsible for contracting their own ward’s websites. It’s an classic example of technology mismanagement- not only are councillors forced to reinvent the wheel with each website (it would be more effective to use a shared template), but there were wild variations in how much each councillor paid to create them. Today we’ll explore who was careful with taxpayer’s money, and who wasn’t.
So, Who Were The Biggest Spenders?
City councillor’s ward websites are pretty simple to build. Standard features include event calendars, contact pages, about pages, and information about groups and services operating in the councillor’s ward- all features that can be installed in a few minutes using plug-in technology. A half-decent developer could build the typical councillor’s site in 2-3 days, at a reasonable (not high, not low) rate of $50 p/hour. So, assuming the councillor is being careful with taxpayer’s money – and they come to the developer with clearly identified requirements – a site shouldn’t cost more than $1,600.
But, in the case of nine city councillors, the city paid multiples of that price:
Joe Mihevc- City Halls Highest Roller!
Total Website Expenditures: $17,350
Joe Mihevc’s website is typical of most city councillors- including a standard news update, calendar, newsletter sign-up and the obligatory ‘About Joe’. Considering the purpose of a councillor’s site is to distribute information to their wards, and not self-promotion, he appears to have crossed the line using such highly-promotional copy in the header:
“Joe Mihevc is Toronto’s city councillor representing Ward 21, St. Paul’s West. He is an advocate for strong neighbourhoods, healthy communities, a clean environment and safe streets.”
This is the second website Joe has billed taxpayers for, the first website cost $4,200. He’s spent an additional $9,600 on hosting, modifications, and cosmetic design changes. Curiously, just 71 days before candidates could register for this year’s election, Mihevc decided it was a good time to splash-out an extra $3,550 of our money to build a whole new site. He made a deposit of $710 to the developer on October 22nd, and a final payment of $2,850 on December 23rd (9 days before this election’s registration date).
Shelley Carroll- Den Mother To Toronto’s Militant Activists:
Total Website Expenditures: $12,977.81
Shelley Carroll’s website was designed by a radical-left affiliated company called The Public. Her expensive boutique designer describes themselves as an “activist design studio”- clients have included CUPE, No One Is Illegal, and the group who hijacked Idle No More from the four women who created it.
The Public’s creative director Sheila Sempath is friends with Convicted G20 ringleader Alex Hundert, and refers to herself as an old friend of Olivia Chow. Carroll herself has close relationships with people who organized the violence at the G20- she’s hired two of them onto her staff at city hall (one who was convicted to 10 months in prison and says she’d do it again).
Just like Mihevc, Shelley Carroll also contracted for her site just days before this year’s election season- paying a 100% deposit of $4650 on December 10, 2013 (only 22 days before the first day of candidate registration). Examining the vendor’s bill (see above picture), it appears that $1,500 of the cost was for “creative” services which is interesting because there are no special graphics and the design is by a standard (free) template. Carroll’s previous website was designed in 2009, she paid a whopping $8,327.81 for design and implementation.
Despite the fact Shelley Carroll paid a 100% deposit at the end of 2013, the site took many months to complete. When I approached Carroll on June 7th and asked her why the site hadn’t been delivered, she assured me it would be up in a few days. The site was posted by June 11th, but there were still rough edges that needed to be completed- it appears they’ve all been fixed now.
Michael Thompson Is A High Maintenance (contract) Guy:
Total Website Expenditures: $12,125.60
The front page of Michael Thompson’s website is slightly self-promotional, featuring a tagline “Getting Things Done!”. Other information on the page includes listings of services, events and a page where users can register to receive his newsletter. Thompson paid his developer $3,800 to build the site (paid this upfront on December 30, 2008). On July 13, 2013 he paid $1,017.60 for an upgrade.
The remaining $7,158 of Thompson’s website expenses were for hosting and website maintenance. He was paying $150 per month for this service, pre-buying four hours of technical support- this later dropped to $76 per month with two hours. It doesn’t appear Thompson was being careful with taxpayer money when he decided to buy the contract, he spent more money on website support than any other councillor.
Janet Davis Gets A Pre-Election Makeover:
Total Website Expenditures: $12,125.60
Janet Davis’ website is like any other, no special bells & whistles. It was built in 2008 and cost taxpayers $4,950. It’s unknown how often Davis orders new furniture and decorations, but she appears to be meticulous about keeping up the appearances of her website. On December 23, 2010 she paid $2,200 for re-design and template modifications.
On November 6th, 2013 – just 56 days before candidates could register for this election – Davis decided it was once again time to change the drapes. The total for the bill the changes was $3,500, of that $2,850 was entirely cosmetic- there was little to no value to the taxpayer, but at least the website looked beautiful for this year’s election!
Davis has spent $1,650.32 on hosting and maintenance since 2008.
Payback Time For Adam Vaughan’s Volunteer? (With Taxpayer Dollars):
Adam Vaughan resigned from city earlier this year, successfully running for Olivia Chow’s old MP seat in Trinity-Spadina. Vaughan paid an entirely reasonable $1,000 when he built his site on December 31, 2008 (multiples less than Janet Davis’ recent makeover). But like Thompson, Vaughan got dinged with maintenance and hosting costs- paying $2,600 in 2009. The last expense Vaughan registered for his website was for “website development” and hosting- costing taxpayers $5,400.
The invoice for that charge (see above) seems rather peculiar. First, line items for development and hosting only include a description- there’s no breakdown of how much each item cost. Next, it was interesting to see that the company’s address is from outside of Toronto- entering it into Google Maps; one can see that it’s not an office building, but a private residence:
Searching the company’s name on Google also brought some interesting results. First, the company has used a Toronto address in the past- 43 Queens Park Crescent East (the sign out-front says it belongs to the Jesuits). Next, and infinitely more interesting, there’s a LinkedIn page for Aneon’s former employee Matthew Lai.
Reading through Lai’s resume shows us that he has some experience with political campaigns:
What it appears to have happened here is that Adam Vaughan gave a no-bid contract for building and managing his website to someone who was involved in “various election campaigning efforts” during his campaign for city council. Not having researched city council’s rules, it’s hard to know if this was an ethics violation- but, if it wasn’t it certainly should be.
There’s also one more mystery to be solved, city hall’s website indicates there was a $6,000 “emergency” payment to Aneon in 2007. It’s unknown what the charge was paying for, nor who ordered it.
Norm Kelly- Last Of The Big Spenders:
Norm Kelly comes-in at number nine in the big spenders list. His website is attractive, but has less functionality than most councillor’s websites- it comes across more as an opportunity for self-promotion than an effort to inform his constituents. Kelly’s first website charge of $5,290 on December 15, 2008 was was itemized as “website updates”, there was a $2,900 charge for “website updates” in August 2010.
Invoices were made to the Wradi Corporation, a company with a very small web presence, and whose focus doesn’t appear to be on making websites.
City Councillors In Need Of Improvement:
The positive thing that can be said about this group of city councillors is that they didn’t blow nearly as much money as the councillors in the Big Spenders list. That said, as we’ll demonstrate in the next section detailing the Sensible Spenders, there’s definitely some room for improvement.
Outside of that, there’s only one other thing that stuck-out while researching this group, but it’s not about websites. Councillor Mark Grimes billed the city to have someone setup his LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts. It seems like he’s in a murky position here- he’s actively campaigning on Twitter, but the city paid to help set it up for him. Also, it doesn’t seem right a councillor should bill taxpayers for setting up a service as personal (it’s basically an online resume) as LinkedIn.
And Now A Look At The Good Guys:
The councillors on the Good Guys list did a pretty good job (on their websites at least) managing their constituent’s money. In general, their sites are no better or worse than the Big Spenders or Needs Improvement crowd- but their costs have been multiple times less.
After spending so much time analysing the bad and the ugly, one of the most refreshing discoveries was Denzil Minnan-Wong’s website. It’s not the most beautiful of all city councillors’s sites but it has as much functionality as any of the others. It’s also the perfect example of how wasteful the Big Spenders were with taxpayer money- he paid $500 for the initial design in 2011, then $300 in 2013 for some upgrade work.
To put this into perspective, Minnen-Wong’s total website expenses added up to $800; over 21 times less than Joe Mihevc’s, 16 times less than Shelley Carroll, and 15 times less than Michael Thompson. Great work Denzil!
Is Zero Really My Hero?
This last group of city councillors haven’t turned-in website related expenses since 2008. Some voters get really excited when councillors like Rob Ford brag about covering their own expenses, others see it as a parlour trick. Either way, it works out okay for the city’s taxpayers.
A Classic Example Of Technology Mismanagement:
The city’s policy allowing councillors to order their own website is a classic example of technology mismanagement. It’s a problem I saw often working as a management consultant in the late 90’s, but best practices changed a long time ago- efficiently run organizations have centralized purchasing and operations of their websites now (and mobile phones, copiers, printers, etc).
The city’s current policy has significant weaknesses:
- As demonstrated by the wildly varying costs between different city councillors, it’s a cost-control nightmare.
- There’s a lack of continuity in the services and information provided to people in different wards.
- Each time a city councillor creates a website they’re forced to re-invent the wheel; creating a brand new requirements list, layout and design. Best practice is to have a standardized template for councillor’s websites.
- The city is paying for these websites but has absolutely zero control- each is managed by different companies, and hosted on different servers. This may introduce liability issues.
My recommendation is that the city needs to come up with a plan to get this under control (if they need help, I’d love to take the contract). It’s not something that can be done overnight, and it may not be necessary (depending on the lawyer’s view on the liability issue) to start a project migrating every councillor to a new platform. But, at the minimum, it would be a really good idea to set some guidelines for the new councillors who will be joining council after this election.
Details of each councillor’s website expenditures can be seen in this spreadsheet, or downloaded using this link: