By Patrick Meagher
John Cryderman wants to fix small-town politics and their bureaucracies. So, after years of battling his own municipality of Chatham-Kent, he went to the province in 2016 with a 46-page report offering arguments to save billions of dollars annually, without cutting jobs or services, by focusing on Ontario’s municipalities, and what he believes is their inherent ongoing poor management of tax dollars.
He raised a few eyebrows in his presentation to the provincial finance standing committee for wanting to more than tinker with the system. He wanted to fix all 444 Ontario municipalities, or at least the larger ones. He calls them “the biggest bleed we have.” Collectively, Ontario municipalities have an operating budget of about $55 billion (about as high as Ontario’s single biggest item: Health care) and says that by reining in municipalities, the province can save taxpayers $5 billion to $15 billion a year.
He’s been beating that drum for a few years and is now respected, feared and hated. Perhaps someone likes what he’s saying, as Premier Doug Ford recently announced investigations into the operations of 82 municipalities.
Cryderman’s complaints are leveled at both elected officials and the bureaucracy behind them. Municipalities need to be more transparent, while too many municipal politicians don’t know what the job entails and don’t question their administrators. Too often, administrations think they’re in charge but under legislation, councils are the boss. While that’s Cryderman’s experience with a handful of municipalities, he argues it’s reasonable to conclude that it happens with all or many municipalities across the province,” he told Farmers Forum.
His proof is the thousands of complaints about municipalities documented on the websites of the Information privacy commissioner and Ontario’s ombudsman. How often do we hear councillors say about their own administration: “I can’t get answers.”
Brampton is one sorry example. Its city council was so fed up with its own administration, it paid for a forensic audit and in 2016, fired 25 managers and key city staffers. One councillor later boasted: “We cleaned out the entire sixth floor.” One of the issues was unsustainable labour costs as an insider told the Toronto Star that the list of employees earning more than $100,000 was “growing like crazy.”
While Cryderman, a former police officer turned self-employed business investor, spends 35 hours a week battling his own municipality, he has many concerns about the bureaucracy, or administration, including a key issue: The rules seem to support a selfish aim to expand local government because there is a built-in incentive. Municipal pay structures seem to base salaries on bureaucracy and department size and level of responsibility, he said. Increase the bureaucracy and you increase pay.
There are other factors but it’s no secret that some government job openings become known as an individual’s chance to win the lottery. For example, he points to the Chatham-Kent police chief and CEO. If either were to retire at age 60, he or she could get $145,000 annually indexed for the rest of his life. Live to age 85 and that’s a $4.5-million prize, all pocketed while in retirement and 100 per cent paid for by taxpayers.
“In the majority of cases, people that are pensioned in Chatham-Kent and other municipalities will make more in their pension than 90 per cent of us will make in the private sector in all of our years of employment,” Cryderman said. “We cannot balance the books unless we look at stuff like that. But it doesn’t mean people have to lose their jobs,” he said.
Politicians are also part of the problem, he said. “A lot of people who run for council, in my experience, have never been to a council meeting and their reasons for running in the first place are often out of step with what is required. Some get involved because they want the annual $32,000 a year (in Chatham-Kent). I think others become involved because of pride and ego. The fact that they are an elected member, I think that has a fulfillment for them and I understand that. Others run because they feel they can change things for themselves. They have a private business and perhaps feel that they can manipulate the system, for a benefit to themselves and perhaps for others — fair enough.
“I also believe that some run because they are honestly fed up with the way things are going. But when they get in there, those very few people, who run to help all the moms and dads and boys and girls of a community, find that they have to go with the system or they are going to drown.”
Even if it were true that most municipalities run a tight ship, the room for shenanigans is tempting because it can be done with impunity, he said. Provincial law only requires annual audits of the figures that a municipality decides to hand over to the contracted auditor or accountant of the municipality’s choosing, he said. It’s in that climate that Chatham-Kent police services offered this expense item: $108,000 described as “other expenses.” The paid auditor/accountant doesn’t break that down but the taxpayer should know what those “other expenses” are to know where their money is going. “Administration is hired to manage only, not to control,” Cryderman said.
Cryderman’s three-point plan to improve the system is straightforward.
1. Amend the municipal act to clearly articulate the responsibility of elected officials and the municipal administration.
2. Expand the power of the auditor general “so that based on strict criteria, the auditor general can perform at large, an initial review. Based on preliminary findings, a more comprehensive financial operations review can be done. Then if necessary, a forensic audit of municipal financial management and governance. Right now there is no legislation that allows that.”
3. Expand and amend powers and authority to the Ombudsman Act, in particular to have authority to oversee local police boards, especially for accounting and transparency issues, as police boards frequently have the largest or second-largest budget in a municipality, he said.
Not everyone is bad news, Cryderman concedes. He’d hire about 95 per cent of the employees in his own municipality. “I find so many that are hard-working and want to do the best they can,” he said. “That leaves about 5 % who should seek employment elsewhere.”