Lords of the ring (and finger food)

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Lords of the ring (and finger food)

If this keeps up much longer, maybe we should start calling our city councillors the Lords of the Ring.

In case you missed it, the ongoing debate over whether tax dollars should be used to buy “civic rings” for retiring, defeated or deceased councillors has been booted back to committee for more study.

Fortunately, in the process Terry Whitehead has come up with what could be the perfect solution to what is clearly an irritant to many taxpayers.

Whitehead suggests that sitting councillors who someday want to receive one of the commemorative rings — which typically cost about $600 each — could pay for it themselves through voluntary payroll deductions.

That’s a workable and sensible idea. It allows the ring-giving tradition to continue but not on the backs of taxpayers, most of whom probably don’t believe their dollars should be used to stoke the vanity of elected officials who already receive a handsome salary of $93,000 a year.

Additionally, perhaps the same payroll deduction model could be used to end the outdated practice of taxpayers buying free lunches for councillors and senior staff.

The ring issue surfaced last month after the governance review subcommittee endorsed a staff proposal to formalize an “existing” but lapsed practice of giving rings to erstwhile councillors as a mark of appreciation.

The rings, which are engraved with the councillors’ initials and years of service, weren’t presented to former councillors from the 2010-2014 term because, for the sake of accountability and transparency, the city clerk wanted to have the custom authorized by a formal policy.

It was this proposed turning of a soft practice into a hard policy — not to mention formally setting aside $5,000 per term to potentially pay for the baubles — that sparked media attention and provoked controversy.

Only three of the five members of the subcommittee were present for that first vote. Maria Pearson and Lloyd Ferguson voted in favour; Matthew Green was opposed.

The issue then moved up the ladder to Monday’s finance committee meeting, which voted 4-2 in favour of giving out the rings. In that instance, Ferguson, Pearson, Chad Collins and Arlene VanderBeek voted in support; Donna Skelly and Brenda Johnson were opposed.

Next stop, Wednesday’s council meeting for a ratification showdown. But instead of a moment of truth in front of the full council, Whitehead’s proposal for further study carried the day by a 10-4 vote. Skelly, Johnson, Sam Merulla and Aidan Johnson voted against the delay, presumably because they wanted to end the matter then and there.

Though the referral keeps the issue alive, at least Whitehead’s suggested payroll deduction has opened the door to a compromise. Council should walk through it for both the rings and the freebie lunches.

Whether it’s a $600 ring or a $33,000 annual expenditure on free grub, there’s no escaping the simple reality that both perks smack of a clubby sense of entitlement that has no place at today’s city hall. Both the optics and the application stink.

Yes, it may sound like a petty sum of money in light of the city’s $2.1-billion budget. But when poverty is rampant and people are struggling to make ends meet, councillors should lead by example. Why should anybody but themselves pay for their exclusive mementoes and sandwiches and pizzas?

The argument that free backroom vittles enable them to work through lunch hour meetings is a handy excuse for complacency. City councils in Toronto, Windsor and London have all cut their free lunches. Why not Hamilton?

Sooner or later, the ring issue is going to come to a final vote. By logical extension, any councillor who’s against giving away civic rings should oppose continuing with the free lunches. If not, they may as well drop the lip service and get their ring fingers sized.

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