Why is it so hard for an elected official to separate their political role from their personal self?
Put another way, why do so many elected officials use public money to promote personal benefits?
During the second half of the 1990s, signs along the highways told us that this repair or upgrade is being brought to us by Premier Michael Harris and Minister of Transport “fill in the blank”. The sign also communicated the approximated completion date and may have even told us how many kilometres the current traffic disruption would cover. At some point an ombudsman or similar provincial official deemed that including who the premier and minister were as inappropriate, as it was clear that the intent of the sign was to link the roadwork to the politicians which created a direct political benefit funded by tax dollars.
This ruling did not end the abuse. It merely changed the way that our political class did things. The federal conservatives did this regularly when Stephen Harper was PM – “brought to you by your new Conservative government”. During the lead up to the current provincial election, the Ontario government was running endless TV commercials as well as print and Internet ads promoting their programs. What was obvious to all is that these parties were using tax dollars to promote their party. Don’t look for these ads now, because once the writ was dropped, the ads had to stop.
All of which takes me to this week’s example of using public money to promote personal benefits. The City of Ottawa issued a press release announcing that Mayor Jim Watson and transportation chairman Keith Egli would be kicking off construction season by hosting an event at a busy corner. First of all, holding a press event at a busy corner creates a distraction to the drivers. Don’t look at your mobile device driver, because we want you to look at us. Stunningly foolish, but that isn’t news, in the same way that mosquito-bites-hiker isn’t news. It happens so often.
So, what was the problem with the press release? Well, the municipal election campaign started on May 1, and both Watson and Egli are seeking re-election. How is using the city’s communications department resources for such an obvious personal benefit not an abuse of the municipal election spending rules?
I get monthly e-mail messages at my personal e-mail address, as contrasted with the Centrepointe Community Association e-mail address, from firstname.lastname@example.org providing me with his monthly newsletter. These newsletters fall in the same category as those aforementioned Ontario government ads promoting selected programs. The June newsletter starts with a picture of the mayor along side Ontario Minister of Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli and MP Mona Fortier posing with gold-painted sledge hammers pounding in the last spike equivalent of the LRT.
Another picture shows His Worship with PrimeMinister Justin Trudeau at the Bayview Yards. The next article has a picture of Watson with people who have been awarded the Order of Ottawa. The last piece in the newsletter is an advertisement promoting the Mayor’s Rural Expo (to be held at downtown city hall – did anyone in the mayor’s office even think about the irony of that message?). Self-promotion, using municipal resources? No question. A breach of the municipal election regulations now that the campaign is officially underway? No idea.
I also received at my personal e-mail address an invitation to the mayor’s Kickoff Rally, this one coming from email@example.com. While the sender appears to be part of Watson’s re-election campaign, is it appropriate that the mayor’s re-election campaign can use my personal e-mail address, the one that he got from someone (I didn’t give it to him) in his capacity of mayor? How many of the e-mail addresses used by firstname.lastname@example.org were part of the mayor’s newsletter e-mail distribution list? Is his campaign using an asset developed using municipal resources for re-election purposes? Absolutely. Is this list available to anyone who is running for election? If so, at what cost? Did Watson’s campaign pay the city for the e-mail list? We will only know when the election expenses are filed well after the election.
It would appear that not every intelligent life form that populates the backrooms of our political power bases have learned something from the Senate expense scandal. That high profile set of cases revolved around (un)elected officials who could not, or chose not, to differentiate between expenses incurred in their capacity as a Senator and expenses incurred for their personal benefit. It brought the word “entitlement” to the forefront of Canadian vocabularies.
Is Watson using municipal resources to promote the re-election of Watson? Is Watson able to differentiate between municipal activities and re-election activities? Does Jim Watson think that he is entitled to use municipal resources to enhance his chances of re-election? Who knows? Maybe the only positive outcome of this rant is that someone will remove my personal e-mail address from all of Watson’s distribution lists.
Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.
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