Use of Region-paid political flyers comes under fire
St. Catharines Coun. Brian Heit believes informational flyers distributed by some of his fellow regional councillors have crossed the line when it comes using Niagara Region resources for campaign or political purposes.
“We have to find where the loophole is and stop it,” Heit said while requesting a staff report on the issue during the Region’s corporate services committee Wednesday.
“We have to clean this up right now,” he added. “This is my integrity. It is all of our integrity that is being called into question by the use of our resources.”
The councillors in question — Port Colborne’s David Barrick, Grimsby’s Tony Quirk and Fort Erie’s Sandy Annunziata — said the flyers were completely appropriate. As councillors, they said they have a duty to keep their constituents informed and saw nothing wrong with using taxpayer funds to accomplish that end.
“I think the residents of Fort Erie are very appreciative of knowing the good work this council has done, especially with projects in Fort Erie and the region as a whole,” Annunziata said. “I know my constituents are very grateful when they are updated with any flyer that goes out there.”
The reasoning didn’t mollify Heit. He wants the staff report to include details on who authorized the preparation of the flyers as well as the cost. He also wants to know who approved the distribution and the associated cost and whether the councillors used their expenses to have the public foot the bill.
Quirk said he had nothing to hide. He said he authorized the flyer. He had them printed and distributed and expensed the exercise when the Region’s communications shop couldn’t meet his deadline. “The cost was $1,500 to distribute 10,000 of them,” Quirk offered up without being asked. “It is the same thing my predecessor did when she published newspaper ads and expensed them back to the Region. I used the past practice as best practice.
“I will be happy to have the conversation with anyone who wants to have it, especially my constituents who were happy I updated them.”
Port Colborne city council put the issue into the spotlight earlier this week when the mayor and councillors took turns lambasting Barrick for using the flyer to contrast the city’s property tax and water bill increases to those at the regional level.
In a Metroland story, city treasurer Peter Senese said the comparisons were unfair. Port Colborne, he said, has had stagnant assessment growth, while the Region can rely in part on high assessment growth in municipalities such as Grimsby and Niagara Falls to keep increases down.
Heit said he contacted a former Region communications employee and enquired about past practices with regard to flyers and the use of the Region logos.
“I was told it wasn’t done in the past and anything that had a regional logo was carefully reviewed and was never allowed to be self-serving.”
Region CAO Carmen D’Angelo had a testy exchange with Heit. He said it wasn’t appropriate to ask staff for a report that required comment on councillor behaviour.
“That is not the role of staff,” he said. “If you have an issue with the code of conduct, my advice is that it is an integrity commissioner complaint.”
“I’m not asking you for an opinion,” Heit replied. “I’m not asking you about a code of conduct complaint. I am not asking you for a comment on the expense policy. I am asking you specifically for information about who authorized this and what it cost. When I get the information, I will determine what to do with it.
“And the public will as well.”