Commentary

It's Not Just About How Much the Rings Cost

For far too long we've allowed toxic masculinity to persist at the expense of women and members of the queer community. The symbol of power that these rings hold and the pervasiveness of that power continues to go unchecked.

By Cameron Kroetsch
Published June 06, 2017

Hamilton's City Council is in the process of voting on whether or not they should give their alumni (i.e. retired councillors) a ring to show their appreciation for completing a term on Council.

The rings could cost taxpayers as much as $5,000 per term of council (four years). There has already been what I would call a "preliminary" vote on the subject in favour of the rings, which took place at a Governance Review Sub-Committee meeting that got a little bit of attention from local and social media.

I agree with what's already been said. Sure, the rings cost a lot of money and I'm bothered that Council continues to be happy to spend our money on things like this. But, I'm not really surprised.

The city is comfortable spending much more on staff time and food for councillors at marathon meetings so that they can grandstand and campaign.

The $5,000 for these rings pales in comparison to the already-neglectful spending practices of the city.

I'm more concerned about the message these "class rings" send about how our councillors see themselves and how they represent their constituents.

But before I get to that, let me set the scene as well as I can with the limited information available on the city's website and in coverage by the CBC and the Hamilton Spectator.

Who Said What and How People Voted

Not surprisingly, councillors Maria Pearson (Ward 10) and Lloyd Ferguson (Ward 12) "voted for the ring policy" (according to the CBC coverage of the meeting) and according to the Spectator article, councillor Tom Jackson (Ward 6) "felt bad" that former colleagues weren't "[acknowledged] for their years of sacrifice".

There was a bright spot when, in addition to his tweets on the subject, councillor Matthew Green (Ward 3) said that he was "challenged to support this given what it symbolizes" (according to a Hamilton Spectator article).

He went on to say that he would have a hard time supporting it given the monetary implications and that councillors should purchase these rings for themselves if they wanted them. Good, but a little bit beside the point in my opinion.

As an aside, and to the point I made in another article, the vote looks like it was recorded as 2-1 in favour of the rings. The two councillors who voted in favour, Ferguson and Pearson, appear to have outvoted councillor Green who was in opposition.

My question: Where were Judi Partridge (Ward 15) and Arlene VanderBeek (Ward 13)? Not in attendance? Did they just abstain from voting? According to the City's website they're both on this committee.

So, What's the Big Deal?

Monetary implications and hurt feelings aside, I think it's more important for us to talk about some of the other large, loud, elephants in this room as an example of why Hamilton continues to disappoint its residents and distance itself from many other municipalities who seem to have a more nuanced understanding of citizen engagement and good decision making.

My tweet out about this was one word: "Gross". At the moment, it was hard for me to come up with another way to encompass the problems with the idea of giving out a class ring to city councillors.

After a few more moments to think about it, this article is my attempt at unpacking what I think continues to be a problem for all Hamiltonians: the city's decisions make all of us look bad. The city keeps making bad decisions that demonstrate that it is firmly committed to a vision with its sights set on our disastrous municipal past.

One Ring to Rule Us All

I don't know what these rings will eventually look like but if the example pictured in the CBC article is any indication, I'm pretty troubled by the message that they're going to send about Hamilton when our "retired" councillors leave their esteemed positions and go out in the world brandishing them.

Civic ring the city gives to outgoing Councillors (Image Credit: CBC Hamilton)
Civic ring the city gives to outgoing Councillors (Image Credit: CBC Hamilton)

As a member of the queer community, but also of the community community, all I think about when I see that gross high school football ring is: gender and power. Men wear those rings and they're made for men.

Like others on Twitter have already said, the second thing that immediately came to mind was: I wonder when the city will be ordering "letterman jackets" for councillors?

Back to my point, and more specifically, these rings are made for men who win at sports and they're given to mark those men out from other men as more important, more special, and more masculine.

There are probably people willing to make arguments that these symbols can and have been subverted or how these are only "class rings" and thus benign.

And I can hear the counterarguments now about "reading too much into it" and it being about "how you interpret it" - but I challenge anyone who has seen the picture of the ring in the CBC article to tell me that my interpretation is vastly different from how they understand that these symbols are making meaning in the world.

When I see them I immediately think of "high school football" and "Super Bowl champions" which I instantly connect, visually or otherwise, to men in masculinity-enhancing padding trying to best each other at who can touch, throw, kick, and spike the animal-skin-ball the best.

It doesn't get much more overtly masculine and powerful than that.

This Isn't About Gender and Power

This is definitely about gender and power.

For far too long we've allowed toxic masculinity to persist at the expense of women and members of the queer community. The symbol of power that these rings hold and the pervasiveness of that power continues to go unchecked.

Reinforcing these symbols is a bad idea and making these rings available to city councillors just reinforces how Council continues to perceive itself.

I say all of that to emphasize how awful the symbol of the "class ring" is in this context. In a time when women are marching on nation's capitals and trans folks are fighting for access to public life, we need to be even more thoughtful about why that work is necessary and important.

Hamilton has a variety of reputations but one that's not talked about enough is its reputation that the city isn't safe for women and queer folks. I'm not going to qualify that reputation but I think it's important that the people who are purported to lead this city make decisions with that in mind.

But People Don't Have to Wear Them, Right?

This ring is a symbol of an accomplishment and it's a metaphorical keycode to the door to the alumni club of councillor privilege. If you get this ring it means you deserve it, you earned it, and you did your job.

The implication is always that you won, that you were successful, and that you were appreciated. In this case, though, it's given out not as a result of winning a contest, completing a milestone that involves years of passing tests, or any other even semi-objective criteria.

In its best application, this ring would be given to a councillor for physically existing in a space for a period of time and for nothing more.

I'll leave you with some questions about what this could even mean in the current political context in Hamilton. What are the measures of success for a Hamilton City Councillor to be given this ring "because they deserve it"? Incumbency? Giving out recycling bins? An inability to govern?

These are the things I think of when I reflect on the current Council.

If these are truly not just rhetorical signposts inserted by me to get a reaction, but the genuine reasons for rewarding councillors with these rings, then I say order them a ring for every finger.

Otherwise, I ask the General Issues Committee (scheduled to vote on this at some point) to shake their respective heads and tell councillors Ferguson and Pearson that their voices don't represent the rest of Council or their constituents.

Cameron Kroetsch moved to Hamilton in 2014. He's a labour relations professional, sometimes writer, and a passionate non-profit sector volunteer who cares about democracy in government and community advocacy.

22 Comments

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 08:36:27

Besides the cost (which is indeed pretty insignificant: $1.25k annually), and the message it projects, I'm disappointed by the lack of imagination they showed in going for ugly commodity "high school grad" style rings mass produced (presumably) by the American company Jostens.

If they do think rings are a nice way to commemorate service (many other employers do mark service with gifts), then they should have turned to some of the excellent artisan jewelry designers in Hamilton, rather than going for a commodity US company.

I'm sure that local craftspeople could design a much more attractive ring, maybe even personalized, for a similar cost. That would be a real made in Hamilton momento! Maybe they could even be made of steel (like the engineer rings)!

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By sparrowswain (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 09:43:31 in reply to Comment 121572

I was a little reluctant to get into the Jostens connection because I wasn't sure if Council was definitely going with them but I completely agree about what you said here. There are so many other ways to do these things. I wish our Council was more thoughtful.

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By mountain66 (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 10:08:04

If all it costs is $5000.00 per Councillor when they are voted out I hope they have to order lots of these after the next election. The reality is that there is very little turnover and I believe only 4 incumbent Councillors have been defeated since Amalgamation. That would indicate to me you would either have to be doing an extremely bad job or choose to leave yourself to receive a ring.

Comment edited by mountain66 on 2017-06-06 10:29:24

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 18:26:43 in reply to Comment 121576

It's not 5000 per ring, it's 5000 per term. I believe the math worked out to ~$300 per ring.

But let's be real: Would you actually wear that ring somewhere? It's a tacky high school ring. Your accomplishments should be what you did during your term(s) in office, not something on your finger. Maybe give it to your girlfriend to wear on a necklace?

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By DanJelly (registered) | Posted June 11, 2017 at 20:35:27 in reply to Comment 121589

On average, over the past 4 terms since amalgamation there tends to be about 25% turnover on Council each election (due to retirements, election defeats and death). $5000 per term means about $1,250 per ring, since I presume they're only given out to the departing members.

That said, we have had two Councillors and a couple of Mayors voted out in that time, are they worthy of a ring when their constituents don't deem them worthy of their job?

They should just buy each other rings and leave tax dollars out of it. They're certainly paid enough.

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 10:13:32

The whole thing is childish. If they want a ring they can pay for it themselves.

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By Strat (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 10:36:30

How much do we already spend a year compensating these "councillors"?

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By sparrowswain (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 11:07:17 in reply to Comment 121578

If the number Joey quoted in his article is correct then the answer is about $94,000 per year.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 10:44:53

You get a pin once you are sworn in as a member of the Canadian Parliament.

I don't really get the appeal of the ring, especially the gaudy one pictured (if that is what is planned) and can understand the link being made to rings given to members of championship teams in sports.

On the other hand, I think it's important to recognize the public service of those in elected office. $5000 rings isn't how I'd go about this, but I don't object to the idea on principle.

I think people need to think about what they get in terms of work from city councillors. I might not always agree with every decision or position taken by mine, but never doubt that my councillor works long, often thankless, hours in their elected capacity ... far beyond what makes sense based on what we pay our councillors.

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-06-06 10:46:21

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 12:53:47 in reply to Comment 121579

I thought the total maximum budget was $5k per four years for possibly multiple rings, not $5k per ring (which would indeed be very expensive).

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By sparrowswain (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 12:55:05 in reply to Comment 121584

Yes, that's also how I understood it - $5,000 to spend for this term of council (2014-18).

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By RobF (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 13:23:57 in reply to Comment 121585

I must have misread. Now I'm even more puzzled as to why people get upset about the cost. I don't much like the ring idea, but as I said I don't object to the idea of councillors being given something to denote they have been elected and served on City Council. It is isn't so unusual ... personally a pin seems more classy, but these things are subjective. I agree with Kevlahan's point about design and using local artisans, etc. That might add to the cost, though.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 18:40:17 in reply to Comment 121586

The issue is that this is a 1 billion dollar corporation that has hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure deficits, scandal, a "culture of low expectations", and people lost jobs to try and keep tax increases low. Every dollar cut helps with saving. That 5K could go to any number of programs in need rather than giving a trinket to a staffer or councillor to mark their time working at city hall. This is an example of largesse and people paid by my tax dollars making decisions as if the money belonged to nobody and there is no accountability.

We already give them a nice gift for their years of service - it's called a pension and a healthy paycheque. If they want the ring, let them buy it on their own.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 20:51:34 in reply to Comment 121590

If you are elected to the Canadian Parliament you get a pin for you and your spouse ... designed and made by Birks. My point isn't about largesse. It is about respect and acknowledgment of those who serve in elected office. I don't begrudge our councillors that, or at least not mine.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 07, 2017 at 19:55:16 in reply to Comment 121591

I believe that any gift given by the feds to you as part of your package is actually considered a taxable gift, but don't quote me on that. Point being, we aren't in the business of giving tokens to people for doing their jobs when we have no money to cover what we really need first.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted June 08, 2017 at 11:45:19 in reply to Comment 121598

We are probably not going to agree on principle and appear to be talking at cross-purposes. In the case of the house of commons the pin works like an access pass to areas of the parliament buildings not open to the public. Once elected an MP you have life-time access privileges apparently.

On the remuneration front, I consider the rings or any other "tokens" given to a Councillor as part of their overall compensation package. Whether they are or aren't taxable is a moot point.

All you have to do is look at the decision to shift away from having some of their pay being tax-exempt to see the folly in that line of argument. That shift costs us about half a million dollars a year, but now it is easier to see what they are really being paid in salary, or so went the argument from Sammy at the time.

So what would you prefer that they just include it in their next compensation adjustment and pay for it themselves. If we object to the rings, because of what they might symbolize that is fine and understandable. But the argument that we have no money to cover what we need is a little trite. That canard can be rolled out to object to just about any spending decision coming out of public funds. Why build recreation centres or maintain flower beds on boulevards when there are people in need of affordable housing? And on it can go. Where I live it is vocalized as why install traffic calming features when the roads themselves are falling apart?

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By RobF (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 20:52:47 in reply to Comment 121591

But again, I don't care for the rings ...

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By Connie (registered) | Posted June 06, 2017 at 14:41:18

Who else anywhere gets a ring for four years of paid service? 25 years maybe ... but not one four year term. Ridiculous.

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By Strat (registered) | Posted June 07, 2017 at 06:12:43

With all the things this city NEEDS, (NOT WANT) I can't believe this is even a discussion point. I totally agree with "DowntownInHamilton"

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By JWilbur (registered) | Posted June 09, 2017 at 07:51:45

Great article, thank you. I've never known any school that paid for the class rings. It is the graduates who pay for their own rings. Plus you don't get them in Grade School which is the level that many of our Councillors operate on.

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By bobby2 (registered) | Posted June 12, 2017 at 09:25:20

One of the best contributions to RTH that I've read in several months. Well stated Cameron.

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By sparrowswain (registered) | Posted June 13, 2017 at 16:45:34 in reply to Comment 121606

Thanks!

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