Commentary

Sometimes Nothing is Better Than Something

It's time to do away with Councillors' discretionary spending budgets.

By Graham Crawford
Published February 18, 2011

It began with a clumsy photo op: our newly minted Mayor pretending to throw taxpayers' money, in the form of a $10,000 cheque, to the head of the United Way. Great cause. Bad gesture.

As if the optics of that stunt weren't ill-conceived enough, when challenged on the legality of the donation, Mayor Bob Bratina bristled and dismissed any concerns as ridiculous. He suggested that all he had to do to stay legal was to write 39 cheques of $350 each, the amount allowed for a single contribution from an elected offiical in Hamilton.

So much for cheques and balances, I suppose.

All this raises the question: what exactly are the Mayor and the Councillors doing with a discretionary fund in each of their office budgets that permits charitable/not-for-profit contributions and sponsorships in the first place?

Fiscal Context

First a little fiscal context, based on the Elected Official Remuneration Report (CM06016(a) from the Audit and Administration Committee from June 11, 2007, City Councillors in Hamilton receive an annual salary of $63,750 plus a tax-free top-up of $17,250.

Although that totals $80,000, the fact that nearly a quarter of it is tax-free means it's actually more than $80,000, at least it is in working taxpayer terms - since none of us receive nearly a quarter of our income without any tax taken from it.

The Mayor receives $112,502 in salary and an extra tax-free top-up of $30,202, for a total of $142,704. The tax-free portion is greater than the total income for some families in Hamilton.

In addition, each Councillor has a discretionary budget that in some cases reaches nearly $200,000. Most use a big chunk of this discretionary budget to hire extra staff. Councillor Brian McHattie has one full time and one part-time staff people in his office to serve the needs of the residents in his Ward.

Then-Councillor, now-Mayor, Bratina did the same, although currently he runs the Mayor's Office with just three staff positions. He said himself that it was his small staff complement that "afforded" him, and I do use the term loosely, the opportunity to find the extra $10,000 he used for his cheque-throwing photo-op donation to the United Way.

Reasonable Expenses

Most Councillors produce a newsletter using money from the discretionary budget. Informing your constituents of what's going on in the Ward seems like a reasonable investment to me, whether that's for an on-line or print version, or more likely both.

That's not charitable largesse; it's simply good communication and it should be included in their office budget. As a result, there are also postage and delivery expenses related to this kind of communication.

The discretionary budget is used also for paying for things such as office supplies, cell phones and parking, to name a few. Without this budget, spent on these kinds of items, Councillors would have a difficult time running an effective and efficient office able to respond to constituents questions and issues.

Self-Promotion

However, in addition to running the office, most Councillors allocate many thousands of dollars from that same discretionary budget for promotion, public relations, charitable contributions and sponsorships every year.

The items from this list include things such as fridge magnets with their face and contact information, personalized pens again with name and contact info, website design and maintenance, flowers sent in sympathy, movie nights in public parks, door prizes/gifts, uniforms for little league baseball and soccer teams, tickets to banquets/dinners, ads in neighbourhood newsletters, and so on.

Generally speaking, and quite unlike office supplies or parking expenses, Councillors attach their names to every single one of these items. If they give it, you're gonna know they gave it.

The problem is that we provide this money through our taxes to each of them so they can freely spend portions of it providing donations to organizations they deem to be worthy of receiving our money, using their names. And they promote themselves giving trinkets with their names on them.

They get the credit. We get the bill.

These examples are representative, not comprehensive, although the information is freely available directly from your Councillor.

Let me be clear, I'm not trying to make life even more difficult for dedicated volunteers doing the great work they do. What I'm questioning is why Councillors should be able to spend our money to make themselves look magnanimous, which they do every single year they're in office - and which for some is literally decades.

That's a lot of our money being 'donated' by Councillors on their behalf, and not on ours.

A Simple Question

Here's a simple question that may help in forming your own opinion about the Councillors' practice of using your money to make contributions with their names attached to them.

If Earl Basse, the City's Integrity Commissioner, found 16 managers on the City payroll who, for decades, had decided to donate a hundred thousand each year of the City's money to their favourite charities, using their own names to make the donations, would he say it was okay for them to do so?

I'd like to think Mr. Basse would rule in favour of the City and its taxpayers and immediately shut down the charitable contributions by managers, proving my point that this isn't about the charities, but about the source of and the propriety of the contributions.

To borrow a line from Dr. Phil: how's this working for you? For me, it's not working very well at all.

Public Smell Test

Pretty much anywhere in the world, when a politician gives money to a potential voter, it's frowned upon. I'm not suggesting our Councillors are doing anything underhanded, or even intimating they're buying votes. In fact, what they're doing is completely legal under the current Hamilton by-law that permits them to sponsor a baseball team, or buy a table at a cultural event, or give money to local neighbourhood association for an ad in their newsletter.

The only regulation for how they spend our money is that a single contribution may not exceed the limit of $350. But sometimes being technically legal isn't the same as being seen to be living up to the spirit of the law.

As odd as it may seem, sometimes what's legal doesn't always pass the public smell test. Think of Mayor Bratina's writing-39-cheques solution.

There are people in this city who can barely pay their property taxes, or pay their heating bill in winter, or buy a bus pass, yet they are the very same people who are funding this Councillor largesse in Hamilton.

I don't think it unfair to hypothesize that the more a Councillor contributes our money to groups in his or her riding, the more likely he or she will be remembered by the people who received the contribution. I'm not saying this is why they are making the donation, but merely positing that it's a not illogical outcome of the donation.

If any Councillor, or anybody else for that matter, would like to challenge my hypothesis, I'm open to hearing their views.

In the meantime, I have a simple recommendation.

Recommendation

I recommend we reduce the Councillors' discretionary funds - used for contributions to charities, not-for-profit organizations and other such groups, as well as any promotional items that use their images and/or names and contact information - to zero now. As in right now, and not at the end of their current term.

I believe Councillors who speak the loudest in their opposition to my tax saving recommendation are the ones we should question the most. Let's get to the root cause of their desire not to save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars during their term in office.

I say, pay for your own self-promotion. If you want to get re-elected that badly, pay for the between-election campaigning out of your own pocket, not ours.

I might even be so bold as to suggest they join the ranks of all of the other employees of the City of Hamilton who use their own, after-tax money when they give a donation. Many of them have signed up for the payroll deduction plan that raises funds for the United Way. Perhaps all Councillors should do the same, if they haven't already.

To all the organizations that say they invite their Councillor to attend their events because they represent them locally, please keep inviting them. I'm sure your Councillor will continue to show his or her support for your organization by showing up at your event, as your guest.

Just stop asking him or her to use taxpayers' money to buy a ticket for your fundraising draw, or to help buy uniforms for the soccer or baseball team, or to buy a table for your annual event. Stop asking him or her for our money.

If you wish, start asking Councillors for their own money. Or just invite them as you would a friend to a house party and expect only that they will show up and have a good time.

By creating a level playing field through ensuring there is no money for Councillors to give away, and communicating this fact through the Councillors' own newsletters and emails, as well as announcing it at a Council meeting once Councillors have voted unanimously to demonstrate their tax-saving leadership, we avoid any awkwardness between organizations and their Councillors.

No taxpayer money. No asking. No hard feelings. See how simple that was.

Councillors Look for Savings

Some Councillors are already thinking about tax-saving efficiencies, as reported recently by Citizens at City Hall (CATCH).

Councillor Chad Collins said, when speaking about finding cost savings in the Waste Management Department's budget, "We could actually save that half a million, $300,000, $400,000, and reinvest into either your own area, or other areas of the organization that are in an infrastructure deficit position."

Well said, Councillor Collins. Keep finding those multi-hundred thousand dollar savings.

Councillor Sam Merulla, when speaking to the same Waste Management Department, offered somewhat pointedly, "I think we can save 1,000 times more just by eliminating lunches in the department. [...] Quite clearly, this council has spoken on the need to have services remain intact and to decrease the cost of doing business."

Councillor Merulla, you and I are in sync on this one. Keep using that 1,000 times multiplier as you look for cost savings. I am.

My own Councillor, Jason Farr, was quoted in the Spectator suggesting it might be wise to consider doing what I'm recommending, namely reducing the discretionary fund for contributions and sponsorships to zero.

He said it before I wrote it. Good for him, although I'm not sure his comments were all that popular with some of his fellow Councillors. For that matter, I'm not sure my own comments will be either.

Openness and Transparency

Mayor Bratina says constantly that he's all about openness and transparency. Me too.

May I suggest, Mayor Bratina, that you be open enough to consider doing what's right for our already-overburdened taxpayers, and transparent enough to prove you actually mean what you say?

Let's stop "throwing" taxpayer money to others, and start "lobbing" it back into general revenues on behalf of the people who put up the money in the first place, namely the taxpaying citizens of Hamilton.

Let's be clear: I support all of the fine work done by local volunteers and organized charities. I just don't want our politicians to be using our money for their so-called 'donations' to these organizations. Simply put, it's not their money to donate. It's our money.

Drive Down Spending

For those Councillors who may find this rather simple tax-savings plan a little hard to swallow, I say swallow harder. Support the goal of Councillor Collins, Councillor Merulla, Councillor Farr, Mayor Bratina and probably others to drive down spending in order to keep tax increases to zero. It's a worthwhile goal, one that will be appreciated by all taxpayers, regardless of which Ward they live in.

We will not get to zero by finding one program that will save us $18 million. We will get there by trimming a thousand dollars here and a hundred dollars throughout the corporation we know as the City of Hamilton.

I suggest our leaders lead. I suggest they show the way for all of the rest of the employees of the corporation. I suggest they win the praise and support of their constituents by their cost-cutting and not through their-name-attached sponsorships.

Councillors, if you really love that team, and those kids, and that seniors group, and that neighbourhood association, and multiculturalism in general, then do what the rest of us do in the same situation and spend your own, after-tax dollars (or the nearly 25% of your total compensation that is in non-taxed dollars) to show how philanthropic you are.

You might just learn to like it. Certainly, many Hamiltonians, including this one, have found it to be quite rewarding.

Graham Crawford was raised in Hamilton, moving to Toronto in 1980 where he spent 25 years as the owner of a successful management consulting firm that he sold in 2000. He retired and moved back to Hamilton in 2005 and became involved in heritage and neighbourhood issues. He opened Hamilton HIStory + HERitage on James North in 2007, a multi-media exhibition space (aka a storefront museum) celebrating the lives of the men and women who have helped to shape the City of Hamilton.

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By trevorlikesbikes (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2011 at 08:12:11

well said Graham. I couldn't agree more. Lets hope they do swallow harder and stop buying votes with our money.

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By PennyWiseCrawfordFoolish (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 08:23:52

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted February 27, 2011 at 12:51:50 in reply to Comment 59954

The 1st paragraph contains one of the longest sentences I've ever read!
Miss Crabbopple says, "Do not use 'run on' sentences, please. Use punctuation to separate your ideas."

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 09:02:22 in reply to Comment 59954

Hi Lloyd!

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 08:28:46

Councillors are due to make public their office budgets in late March, or early April, according to municipal staff. That will make for an interesting read. Graham is right, pork-barreling and shameless self-promotion should be stopped. Thanks for another good read, RTH. When the public see's what this money is spent on, they will be shocked.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 09:18:44 in reply to Comment 59955

Have their budgets been public in the past, or is this a new thing?

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2011 at 11:02:19 in reply to Comment 59960

@mrgrande

Technically, the budgets have been public, but you have to ask for them through City Hall. It's possible some Councillors have shared these budgets with constituents, although I have no proof of this.

I've known about the Councillor contributions budgets for a few years, but it was Mayor Bratina's photo op that brought this to a head for me.

Added to that, budget deliberations are underway. Despite what some see as a "pittance", I can tell you from my strategic planning days as a consultant to organizations of all sizes, when you focus the passion and the energy of all employees in an organization on generating ideas to save money and by extension jobs (and the City of Hamilton has 8,000 employees) it's remarkable what people will find themselves.

When cost cutting is done to them, they run for cover. When they're asked honestly to contribute to achieving a compelling vision, employees are remarkably innovative. And yes, even if it's only $100 for some, and $10,000 for others, it all counts. I've seen many organizations save themselves from being shut down by finding such "pittances" at every level of the organization.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2011 at 11:33:11 in reply to Comment 59968

Technically, the budgets have been public, but you have to ask for them through City Hall.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons we need a real City commitment to open public data. This information should be findable and accessible as a matter of course.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-02-18 12:01:10

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By Zot (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 08:49:39

While it's possible that a particular council critter is not trying to buy votes with these expenditures of public funds I think it's perfectly reasonable to assume that that's exactly what they are trying to do.

While I am certainly not a Christian I do find the instruction from Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Matthew on the subject of charitable giving to be sound:

1 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 09:00:17

great piece Graham, although I have to admit - that photo op has provided me with many laughs thanks to Dave Kuruc:

http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1...

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 09:23:40

Let's be clear: I support all of the fine work done by local volunteers and organized charities...

Glad to hear it, Graham. Let's just make sure we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I can't speak for all the donations of course, but I know in a few cases in my ward, funds were given to informal volunteer groups who can't afford to become registered charities, so have limited opportunities to raise their own funds. IIRC, in one case, some money was promised to a group precisely so that they could register as a charity and begin independent fund-raising efforts.

Certainly these types of 'donations' do come with the fringe benefits of boosting the councillors' image in their ward, but I think it's overly simplistic to dismiss it as vote-buying. It is part of their job to facilitate positive, community-based initiatives in their ward, and often these initiatives need a little seed money to get off the ground, but don't have access to other types of funding due to their ad hoc nature.

I agree that there needs to be far more transparency and accountability, and registered charities and non-profits that have access to other funding channels should definitely not qualify, but if we eliminate councillors' discretionary spending altogether, we need to ensure that there is a pool of funds somewhere that small, grassroots neighbourhood initiatives can access so their ideas aren't stillborn.

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By streamman (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 22:20:58 in reply to Comment 59961

Highwater I hear what you are saying but I do disagre with councillors providing our Tax money to organizations. Several years ago, on behalf of a not for profit organization I asked my councillor for a small donation out of his office budget. My Councillor politely refused to contribute however he was very supportive of our cause and did push our agenda at council. He did not believe that a donation to our organization of over 500 people was a prudent use of tax payer’s money. Having time to reflect on this he was right and I believe that he made the correct decision. Our organization was resourceful and we came up with the money ourselves. If the Mayor and rest of council were to behave like my councillor then I think Office budgets would be more more resonable and respectable.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2011 at 10:17:42 in reply to Comment 59961

@highwater

You're right, I have no desire to throw the baby out with the bath water. What I might suggest is that we do an audit of who did receive monies from all Councillors in 2010 (a very simple task) and Identify those that fall into the category you describe. While there may not be many of them, as you highlight, there will be some.

Seed money is a good thing in many situations, but annual 'contributions' to the same organization most certainly would not fit my definition of seed money. I suspect not yours either. Having done work with the United Way in my past life in business, they have a set of criteria for qualification that, at a minimum, is worth reviewing to help focus our own thoughts about seed money. It ain't perfect, but what is?

Whether a maximum contribution of $350 from a Councillor will make the difference to an organized group going after charitable status, either directly or from an already formalized not-for-profit status, in order to remain viable is a question for which I do not have an answer. But I think it's a good one to ask as part of the criteria used to determine eligibility for contributions from taxpayers. Charitable status, as you may know, requires that a Board of Directors has already been established and has been meeting for a period of time. You don't tend to move directly from informal volunteer group to receiving registered charity status, no matter how much seed money you may have. At least not based on my own experience which, by definition, is limited.

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By Lloydus (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 09:59:24

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By Daeo (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 15:08:18

Every organization, sports team, arts groups, they are all funded with tax payer money. Would you be willing to cut off funding for the Arts community, the cycling community, the foolish Pan Am nonsense maybe?

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By JonC (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 18:18:41 in reply to Comment 59976

The difference being that those get voted on.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 19:52:44 in reply to Comment 59991

And the other difference being that the recipients are accountable for the money and how it is spent.

I have no problem for a budget for councillors to promote Council, the City, and its government. That seems quite kosher to me and the City certainly needs PR, and people need to be encouraged to engage with their councillors. Even by distributing fridge magnets, sure.

But $3 million for that seems excessive to me; let's talk about what that dollar amount realistically needs to be, let's talk about the degree to which it should be at the discretion of individual councillors and let's make them account for the expenses.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 15:09:02

Some great points made and I think it might cause some stomaches to churn when these amounts actually get exposed. Think of all projects that could get help from that money.

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By just me (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 16:05:45

about accountability, you all should read this Editorial in the weeklies as of yesterday about the secret police budget--well, secret budget more than "secret police!"
--maybe Ryan can post a 'live' link for this.

http://www.hamiltonmountainnews.com/opinions/article/229590

Police budget Rubik’s cube
T H E I S S U E Hamilton Police Services Budget,
O U R V I E W Ongoing secrecy breeds suspicion
By Hamilton Community News Editoral
Editorial
Feb 15, 2011

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By Bobby1 (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 16:37:31

Good and rational article! Funny, before turning to this news outlet,I just e-mailed my Councillor Ward 15 and asked the outcome of Staff's review of Mayor's $10G donation! Of course,I just did it,so no response yet. Office budgets should be used for important communications, not supporting organizations that Councillors believe get them future votes. These votes come from doing a good job for the overall City!

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 18:39:05

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 19:56:56 in reply to Comment 59992

Yes, hammy, what you described would indeed be good (provided the mayor's office is still well run - no one is served well if it's run poorly).

Unfortunately, what the mayor wanted to do didn't save money at all. He wanted to spend just as much money, but to redirect a chunk of it for personal logrolling. That is much, much worse...

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By Julie Twyford (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 21:51:59

I was informed by Legislative Services in the City Clerk's Office that my correspondence had been received by Council and referred to staff for a report back to the city.

I have also spoken to the Integrity Commissioner about filing a complaint. I think people need to become a little more familiar with the processes involved in protesting. I certainly had no idea.

To file a complaint, you need a form, available at City Hall, and $100.00. If the complaint is not frivolous, you will get your money back. I work out of town, and so far haven't had a chance to get back to City Hall to file the complaint. No excuses, but nothing will happen until the proper processes are followed.

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 23:21:13

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By Livsey (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 03:50:26

Hammy works in the Mayor's office, don't you Peggy?

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By Woody10 (registered) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 08:25:54 in reply to Comment 60012

Peggy can spell, I think?

Can I file a complaint against Hammy??

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 10:23:51

Of all the money spent and wasted by this municipality (and others)I find it strange that you are most put off by the money going to a charity.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:00:04 in reply to Comment 60020

Way to miss the point, Meister. Yes, council often votes on spending we don't approve of. Graham acknowledged that the money often goes to good causes, the problem is that it is discretionary ie. undemocratic, and brings direct benefit in the form of goodwill to the councillor doing the giving. The fact that the money is going to charities is beside the point.

If we want to see more of our tax dollars supporting charities than does already, then let's set up a fund and administer it in an open, accountable way. Leaving it up to councillors to dole out at will so they can look like good guys, is unaccountable and undemocratic. Surely you can see that.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 19:44:07 in reply to Comment 60025

Nope, I do not see that. The councilors are given a set amount of money to use as they see fit during their time in office, I am pleased that some of that is going to charity in fact I would be happier if more of it went to charity. I get more worked up about the money paying for small items like pens and fridge magnets with their names on it which is likely used as handouts during campaigns. But that is just me, I like their money going to charity. You can look at it any way you want and if the money going to charity bothers you that much than do all you can to change the system. Me I have more important things to do with my time than stopping a few thousand dollars going to the United Way.

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By Streamman (registered) | Posted February 21, 2011 at 22:38:57 in reply to Comment 60040

Tax payers money should not go towards charity period. If the Councill and Mayor have so much money in their budget that they can afford to donate to charity then they have too much of our tax money.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 22:00:28 in reply to Comment 60040

But that is just me, I like their money going to charity.

It's not "their" money. That's the point. It's our money that we give them to run the city with. If they don't need it, then give it back to us, the taxpayers, so we can decide what to do with it. Perhaps we'll donate some of it to charity - after all, donations mean a lot more when you're donating your own money instead of someone else's.

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By anonIcon (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:31:20

If Mayor Bratina gets over $30,000 tax-free income as a so called "top-up", why then did he not donate from his own "charity?" Shouldn't this tax-free giving to our elected officials be eliminated? What makes them so special? How come we don't get a portion of our income exempt from taxes? This is very disturbing and I wish I didn't know about it!

Shame on him!!!!!!!!!!!!

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By BoBra (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 14:29:38

Platform/Smatform
Transparency/Smansparency
Vranich/Smanich
Ticats/Kick-backs

I'm sure there is more to come...

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2011 at 23:47:09

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 20, 2011 at 12:45:38

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Comment edited by hammy on 2011-02-20 12:46:35

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 08:28:54 in reply to Comment 60065

Then you're here as a 'regular' because...?

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 21, 2011 at 08:30:24

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By Streamman (registered) | Posted February 21, 2011 at 22:42:31 in reply to Comment 60089

Bob Bratina is the entertainer.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:01:20 in reply to Comment 60089

So your idea of "entertainment" is the written equivalent of a pie in the face, I guess that makes the Three RTH Stooges hammy, allan and smith.

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By wow (anonymous) | Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:45:38 in reply to Comment 60091

The more some people post the more they show their personality flaws.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 09:23:49 in reply to Comment 60089

Absolutley No RTH articles are better than nothing..

Meaning, were this to come to be, that you'd be entertained by...?

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By hammie (registered) | Posted February 27, 2011 at 13:50:57

No brainer, I thought this site was to be civil. Shame shame.

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By hammertime (registered) | Posted March 01, 2011 at 16:22:16

The entertainment value doesn't get enough credit on this site..

Comment edited by hammertime on 2011-03-01 16:22:41

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