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Durham Region Council draws complaints by hosting $15K inaugural luncheon
Jan. 8, 2015
By Marco Chown

Early last month, Durham Region Council threw an inaugural luncheon at an Ajax golf club for 272 people and left the $15,000 tab for the taxpayer to pick up.

The luncheon, held immediately after the new council was sworn in at council chambers, featured hors d’oeuvres, a sit-down meal and wine. The $15,238.16 bill included a $1,475.10 tip.

The Star obtained a copy of the bill for the event, which was held in the Taunton Ballroom at the Deer Creek Golf & Banquet Facility, invoicing more than $11,000 for food and $850 for wine.

“Taxpayers have every right to be peeved,” said community activist and former Oshawa mayoral candidate Rosemary McConkey. “Such flagrant misspending of other people’s money smacks of elitism and reveals elected officials in denial about the serious need to instill a culture of cost savings in local government.”

“It was pretty high-end,” said one attendee, who asked not to be identified out of concern about provoking elected officials. The guest remarked that while many councillors brought only immediate family members, some had larger contingents of staffers and supporters on hand.

Durham Region communications manager Tania Laverty confirmed the five-figure cost and said each councillor was allowed to invite seven people.

The guest list included MPs and MPPs, local municipal clerks, members of the Durham Police Services Board, the chief administrative officer and regional department heads, organizing staff, past regional councillors and post-secondary institution presidents, Laverty wrote in an email.

The cost of the meal was approved by council and paid for out of the “2014 nondepartmental budget related to the municipal election,” she wrote. A similar event held after the 2010 election was more than $10,000 more expensive, costing taxpayers $25,409.24.

Oshawa Councillor Amy England defended the luncheon as a reasonable honour to thank outgoing councillors for their service to the public and welcome new councillors to their roles.

“It wasn’t extravagant,” said England.

A similar function, held at the Oshawa municipal level, allowed councillors to invite four people each, she said, and anyone beyond that would have to pay for a $40 ticket.

“I think that there’s an honour to serving the people, and if you’ve never been elected before or if you’ve been re-elected with the confidence of voters, then you want an opportunity to share in that experience with your family,” England said.

“In the future, if the taxpayers want us to pay for our family members, I don’t really see there being a problem in that. But I also think that there is a certain stature to being elected to office and being sworn in and the ceremony of the event, and I believe that all levels of government do something similar.”

Toronto city spokesperson Jackie DeSouza said City Hall hosted a “modest” reception for councillors and guests that was open to the public.

“We planned for 600 people to take part. Light hors d'oeuvres and soft drinks were served but no alcohol. Students from the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto provided the background music. The overall cost for the reception was approximately $17,000,” she wrote in an email.

Councillor David Shiner said each councillor is allowed to invite five people to the inaugural ceremonies and the simple reception. “I’ve been through eight inaugurations and been on council for over 23 years, and I can’t recall one inauguration where the council went out and used taxpayer dollars to celebrate their victories at the poll.”

Oshawa Mayor John Henry, who says he’s “one of the most frugal councillors you’ve ever met,” described Durham Region’s luncheon as “a fairly simple event (that only) happens every four years.”

Henry touted his cost-cutting achievements, pointing out that he has eliminated councillor expense accounts and always pays for his wife to accompany him to other events. For this lunch, however, he invited his maximum quota of seven free guests.

“It’s not something that’s out of the norm. It’s nothing new,” he said, adding, “Is it something that can be looked at? Everything can be looked at.”

Ajax Councillor Shaun Collier said he had been contacted by a constituent about the event but thought it was being blown out of proportion.

“It’s a lunch. That’s all it is,” he said.

When council proposed a council retreat to the Fern resort, Collier said, he opposed it because there’s no reason to pay the extra expense of going out of town and putting everyone up in a hotel.

“That sort of thing I speak out against because I think it’s out of line,” Collier said. “But this was nothing...I mean, what’s next, are we not allowed to have coffee at our council meetings? This is really nit-picking.”