Region wild west on councillor expenses
NIagara Regional Council
Over the last two-and-half years, Niagara taxpayers have paid thousands of dollars so Fort Erie Regional Coun. Sandy Annunziata can appear on a Toronto talk radio show.
Annunziata said his mileage claims for driving to Toronto every week to appear on a Newstalk 1010 political panel is money well spent because he is raising Niagara’s profile. Some of his council colleagues, meanwhile, question whether the taxpayers should foot the bill for his radio appearances.
When it comes to claiming expenses, however, Niagara Region is like the Wild West. There are no rules governing what councillors can claim.
Regional Chair Alan Caslin said it is up to each councillor to decide what is a legitimate expense and what is not.
“When it comes to deciding what is relevant to the business they are conducting, it is within their purview to decide what should be expensed to the Region, paid for by others, or by themselves,” Caslin told The Standard Friday. “It’s not for me to comment, at this point, without a policy. If you ask me the question after a policy is in place, I would have an opinion about the interpretation of that.”
The Standard looked at Annunziata’s expenses as part of a larger examination of how regional councillors spend tax dollars.
Annunziata, a former Toronto Argonauts football player, is a well-known voice in Toronto. Before he was a political pundit on The Jerry Agar Show, he was a sports broadcaster.
Since 2015, Annunziata has appeared regularly on the Agar show on Newstalk 1010 AM. He typically appears in studio once a week on a roundtable discussion, usually driving to Toronto or taking the GO Train.
According to regional records obtained by The Standard, Annunziata files travel expenses for each appearance on the show.
Regional councillors receive 54 cents for every kilometre travelled up to 5,000 kilometres, and 48 cents for every kilometre after that.
Of the more than 15,900 kilometres Annunziata claimed as travel expenses in 2015 more than half, or 8,324 km, were for trips to Newstalk 1010. He would have received around $4,100 dollars.
Most of the mileage Annunziata claims are related to his activities as regional councillor and chair of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. He logs more kilometres than most regional councillors because he lives in Fort Erie, a town on the furthest reaches of Niagara.
“It’s 42 kilometres just to get to regional headquarters from my house,” he said.
The Standard did not have Annuziata’s expenses for 2016 or 2017, but Annunziata said he claimed less for his radio appearances last year and so far this year than he did in 2015.
“You can tell we are approaching an election year when the kilometres I claim becomes news,” Annunziata said in an interview Friday. “I use my platform to promote Niagara and the town of Fort Erie.”
Annunziata, who is not paid to appear on Newstalk 1010, acknowledges his Canadian Football League career gave him a unique profile among Niagara politicians and said he uses that to the Region’s advantage.
“I am, you could say, a D-list celebrity but if I have that platform, if I have that bully pulpit, why would I not use it to raise the profile of Niagara and promote the Town of Fort Erie?” he said. “I think it is very important. If you go back to my early campaign literature, I was talking about it. We have to raise the profile and restore the reputation of Niagara.”
The Newstalk 1010 show rarely touches on political events in Niagara, but rather features discussions about the headlines of the day. In the month of August, for instance, the Agar show discussed Princess Diana, accessible parking at the Calgary airport, safe injection sites in Toronto and refugees crossing into Canada in Cornwall. No Niagara specific issues were addressed.
Annunziata said when an issue has specific relevance to Niagara — such as a recent discussion about GO train station approvals — he always brings the discussion back to Niagara.
Other political issues, from taxes to housing, impact residents across Ontario, including Niagara, he said.
Agar always introduces Annunziata as a Niagara regional councillor from the Town of Fort Erie, and the councillor says that alone helps promote the region.
Annunziata said there has been an increase in housing starts in Fort Erie and more investment in the town over the last few years. He could not say how his radio appearances might be responsible for that.
“You can complain about the mileage, but how much would advertising cost on Newstalk 1010? What would be the expense of that?” said Annunziata. “You have to look at my intent. And my intent was to promote Niagara and the Town of Fort Erie. Newstalk 1010 has a huge audience and don’t you think that (Premier) Kathleen Wynne and her cabinet members are listening?”
St. Catharines Regional Coun. Brian Heit said he wonders why Annunziata doesn’t join the roundtable discussions by phone and save the taxpayers money.
“The radio show doesn’t talk about Niagara,” Heit said. “They don’t talk about Fort Erie. They talk about Trump. This week they would have talked about the flooding in Texas. They talk about anything and everything that goes on. It’s not about Niagara. Even at our own radio station, CKTB, when I’ve gone into talk about something specific, I ended up talking about the topic of the day. How much value is there in that for our taxpayers?”
Given that Annunziata is wearing multiple hats — councillor, NPCA chair and sports personality — Heit suggested the Region shouldn’t be footing the bill alone.
“Should the mileage be split three ways? Should the conservation authority be paying part of it? Should the Region be paying part of it? Should some of it come out of his own pocket because he is promoting the fact he used to be a professional athlete?”
Most councillors interviewed by The Standard declined to comment on Annunziata’s expenses, saying that is an issue between the councillor, the regional clerk’s office and Caslin. They all noted there were no guidelines or rules governing councillor expenses.
“I can’t comment — it’s not fair for me to comment — on the actions of my colleagues, but they are the ones that have to live with themselves after they sign the expense forms,” said St. Catharines Coun. Deb MacGregor.
For his part, Caslin said regional council is exploring new rules for councillor expenses. “What we have decided to do is ask the staff to prepare a policy, so there are some criteria on acceptability and suitability,” he said. “That’s what is going to be coming forward for council’s consideration.
“We want to put something in place that provides some guidelines for councillors to consider moving forward. It makes a lot of sense, and it’s fiscally responsible.”
Caslin and Annunziata both said they would be in favour of having all councillor expenses posted online rather than require a member of the public to file Freedom of Information requests to see them. MacGregor said she is considering making a motion to that effect at council.
St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik said city council has a policy for councillor expenses. He said everything has to be fully documented and be directly related to council business.
“Even if we have lunch with someone, we have to record who we were eating with,” he said.
Sendzik said the lack of formal policies around regional expenses has been an outstanding issue for a decade and is part of a larger, systemic problem at the Region.
“Look at the Burgoyne Bridge project, for example. If the Region had better procurement policies in place, we wouldn’t be facing the problems we are facing. Same thing with expenses,” Sendzik said of the controversial, $90 million bridge project. “When I was on the outside looking in from the (Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce) we were harping on the Region for lack of policies all the time. Now that I am on the inside, nothing surprises me.”
Sendzik said it would be “reckless” for regional council not to create an expense policy before this term of government is finished.