Lunchgate: The Small Fry Scandal

Giving council the time off to go buy their own lunches would actually cost the city more than the current practice of paying for lunch and forgoing the break.

By Mark Robbins
Published March 13, 2017

You would have to be living under a rock not to have heard about it. The City of Hamilton spent $33,000 last year giving free lunches to elected officials. Councillor Donna Skelly for one, is outraged at the waste. Councillors are taking a free lunch on the taxpayers dime, all at a time when the city faces a "budget crisis". Councillors are literally getting fat off of the hard-earned money of taxpayers. Oh the humanity!

With 16 elected officials for the municipality, each member is responsible for about $2000 of the Lunchgate Scandal. Breaking that down by number of working days in the year, the outrage is worth about $8 per lunch.

But wait: this cost also includes meals given to community volunteers who happen to be at these meetings. Since there are usually more volunteers than elected officials, at least a 2-1 ratio, what we are talking about is closer to $3 per working day that the municipality sets aside for feeding councillors.

At $3 per head, this gravy train, if there really is one, looks more like poutine than roast beef.

Certainly, Lunchgate is about an insignificant amount of money. Of total municipal expenditures in the city of Hamilton last year, the entire lunch program represented about 0.00153 percent of the city's budget. The time that was dedicated to responding to Councillor Skelly's tempest in a teapot likely cost more in city resources than the entire manufactured "Lunchgate" scandal was worth in the first place.

To put that number in a different form, Lunchgate cost each Hamiltonian about $0.06 last year. You wouldn't stop to pick up that amount of money off the ground.

For some, Lunchgate is less about the actual cost of the scandal then why elected officials get lunch while every other working stiff has to buy their own. This is worth asking. Indeed, even working stiffs on other city councils do not all get free lunches. Guelph, Toronto and Windsor used to offer the same lunch program as Hamilton but eliminated it several years back.

I wonder to what extent eliminating that program was pennywise and pound foolish. Elected officials are given $3 worth of free food to give up their lunch breaks. If we assume councillors work 60 hours a week, which most do, then their time is worth roughly $30 an hour. Giving council the time off to go buy their own lunches would actually cost the city more than the current practice of paying for lunch and forgoing the break.

The Hamilton Spectator has helpfully suggested that city councillors should still be given lunch in exchange for their breaks, but instead of the current practice of providing the food, the city should send around a jar to collect change so councillors pay their own share. This way, councillors still get work through their breaks, but they themselves will pay for the privilege.

Seriously? Hamilton is getting noticed again as a vibrant and important place in a country that is receiving global accolades for being well organized and forward-thinking. Shaking down politicians for their spare change? Somehow feels unbecoming.

Being an elected official is already not an easy job and the taxpayers have spent the last 40 years pillaging politicians salaries for any benefit good enough to evoke jealousy.

The gravy train is now a piece of history. At $30 an hour, a Hamilton city councillor now earns roughly the same as the entry-level urban planner that works for them. That means the boss's boss's boss earns much less than their staff.

That's before considering the amount of time and money that goes into running for office in the first place, usually tens of thousands of dollars per election attempt. When considering that over 90 percent of election campaigns end in failure, it's hard to imagine a worse return for your time and money than getting into politics.

And that's a problem.

Few disagree that we need better people running for politics and restoring the appeal of a political career is not something can be done overnight. But witch hunts over petty cash, like Lunchgate, just adds insult to injury for folks that are already given shockingly little in terms of respect or pay.

If city councillors want to put in overtime, we should pitch in for some double-doubles and box of donuts and be thankful for the privilege.

Mark Robbins is a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and a proud resident of downtown Hamilton. You can follow him on Twitter @RoboRobbins.


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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted March 13, 2017 at 09:28:16

A quick note that citizen volunteer committees which receive coffee and donuts are budgeted separately in the volunteer committees budget. The volunteer committees budgets have been frozen for a few years. The Seniors Advisory Committee does get vegetable trays, which is in their volunteer committee budget.

The Municipal Heritage Committee meets once per month and my be included in the Councillor lunch budget, but as the City does not make its accounting public, we don't know.

The Committee of Adjustment lunches are paid for by CoA, which is entirely funded by CoA application fees.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 13, 2017 at 09:42:32

Yeah, I can't say I ever really liked making hay over the council meeting lunches, and I like it even less now that Skelly is making it a thing.

Fussing about it seems penny-wise, pound foolish.

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By VivSaunders (registered) | Posted March 13, 2017 at 09:54:43

Also of note, the $33,000 per year was the amount back in 2011. We don't know what the current cost is or exactly what meetings have food provided. It's starting to appear that a councillor can arbitrarily call a lunch meeting with Staff and order in food. Happened to also notice that the HPL board meetings begin at 6:00 p.m. but Agenda shows 5:30 p.m. for Dinner. I'm not necessarily against taxpayer funded sustenance, but I do agree with author that asking Why is at least worth some time.

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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted March 13, 2017 at 10:03:05

Hamilton's the only full-time Council in Ontario that I could find with free lunches.

Other municipalities break for lunch - they also tend to start on time.

In Toronto, there is a 90-minute break for lunches each day. During this time, Councillors are able to meet with their staff, arrange the affairs of their office, and attend to any urgent matters without missing portions of meetings.

The result is Councillors in Toronto return to their Council meetings on time and remain present; instead of losing quorum as regularly happens in Hamilton.

There's another advantage to Toronto's structure: citizen delegations are schedule for either the morning or afternoon, and Councillors pay attention to those delegates because they are not going in and of their lounge to eat and snack during the meeting.

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted March 13, 2017 at 11:55:16 in reply to Comment 120900

I was thinking same Joey. Perhaps the "straight 8" shift is less productive than breaking the day into two shorter portions.

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2017 at 18:16:46

When you use the "cost per taxpayer" metric then every expense looks like a reasonable value. But to say that most people wouldn't pick up 6 cents is just plain wrong. Head on down to the Gore and you'll find lots of people who would be happy to take your nickel. If you're working then sure 6 cents isn't going to change much but 90,000 Hamiltonians live in poverty and when 20 people give you 6 cents you can now buy a couple of apples to eat. Five nickels and you can get some ramen which will fill your stomach if you chug some water with it. The point is councilors make $93,000 a year and you're telling me that they can't pack a lunch? Give me a break. It's the optics of it all. Why not just throw your leftovers in some Tupperware and leave the taxpayer out of the equation? People are having their hydro shut off while councilors get free wraps and sodas. Something isn't adding up here. The rich get richer I guess. What's weird is how the neo-liberals have taken to defending the 1% and their perks. "Thank them for the privilege" indeed. smh. Would you rather have councilors have free lunches or bring one person out of poverty? I know which I'd choose.

Comment edited by JimC on 2017-03-13 18:23:31

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By RoboRobbins (registered) - website | Posted March 14, 2017 at 08:36:29 in reply to Comment 120904

Lets start with a quick fact-check: a 90k council salary doesn't come anywhere close to putting you in the 1%.

And while we are at it, lets be absolutely clear about anther thing: nobody is getting rich from holding public office in Canada. The pay is way worse then what the same skill set would garner in the private sector and the amount of politicians who quietly go broke after leaving public office would make your head spin. Making "politician" a shittier job is exactly the right way to ensure that only foolish people will be in charge of the city's $2B budget, which is the serious money, not the petty cash for working lunches. Like I said in the article, penny wise and pound foolish. The point I'd like to get across is that while there is lots we can scrimp on, the already small budget we set aside for political decision-making is not one of them. Nor will we get much in return for pinching pennies on leadership, literally just pennies.

And I get that its hard to talk about council pay while seeing the dudes a couple blocks from city hall in the Gore. I live near there and while my heart goes out to these folks, but you are kidding yourself if you think they are poking around those nooks and crannies are looking for scrape together money for food. But then again, addiction issues don't fit well with your dystopian story of income inequality especially since psychologists treating addition are paid 100k+ per year, yet another group that gets paid more than city councillors. Its really easy to heckle and take cheap shots about the things you don't like, much harder to be an optimist and make a difference. Just ask your elected representative.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted March 15, 2017 at 10:35:53

I agree with Ryan and Joey here. Councillors SHOULD break for lunch for their own health. At my work, we do not schedule meetings over lunch (12-1). If someone did so, they and their department budget would be expected to supply lunch. Therefore, meetings are not scheduled during that time frame. Why are evening council meetings from 5-9? How about 4-6 with a break, then 7-9. The 5-9 time is not convenient for people who work to attend council meetings either.

The availability of meals during meeting times may be correlated with the filibusters and lack of respect for time that some councillors display.

We shouldn't nickle-and-dime the budget, but I think the entitlement to a constant flow of free food is a bad practice.

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By NortheastWind (registered) | Posted March 16, 2017 at 12:31:53

I was strictly thing of this as a budget issue, which I thought was just small potatoes. But the way Joey puts it makes sense. Toronto's structure seems to be a more effective and efficient way of getting business done.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted March 16, 2017 at 13:16:40

After my dad quit smoking he started to save the money he would have otherwise spent on cigarettes. Every once in a while when he wanted to buy or do something special he'd say 'I'll use my cigarette money' and buy it. He once used this technique to buy himself a fishing boat!

It might be nice to see city council have a 'Lunch Money' fund. Every once in a while they could fix up a park or widen a sidewalk using their lunch money.

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