Peter F. Trent: Dinner tab small potatoes next to city salaries

You should run for public office to give back to your community, not to earn an above-average income.

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Among all the tut-tutting last month about how Mayor Valérie Plante was entertaining overseas like a Canadian governor general and after doubts backstage about the timing of a pay increase for Montreal politicians, a far more important question got camouflaged. Is the City of Montreal already overpaying its elected officials in the same way it is grotesquely overpaying its employees?

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To recap: Montreal’s 2024 budget documents tabled mid-November came with an 11-per-cent increase in elected officials’ compensation. Mind you, one had to wade halfway through 350 pages of budget bumf to discover this little gem.

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The day before the budget presentation came the barely censurable news that Plante had spent some $2,000 for a dinner for 12 in Vienna. Two days later, furious political backpedalling resulted in a scrapping of the pay increase.

In 2022, salaries­ (including fringe benefits and pension costs) paid to the 103 elected officials toiling for the City of Montreal cost taxpayers precisely $16,986,000. That does not include travel and entertainment expenses, nor additional remuneration from external bodies such as the Société de transport de Montréal (STM).

Aside from the independent island suburbs like Westmount, the City of Montreal is populated with 38 borough councillors, 65 city councillors, 18 borough mayors, and one main mayor, all ministering to Montreal citizens. With pay and benefits, these elected officials earned anywhere from roughly $80,000 up to $260,000 in 2022. Compensation averaged out at $164,913 per politician.

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I have to say $165,000 seems like excessive remuneration, especially considering at least some of these positions should be part-time. The suddenly cancelled increase in the 2024 budget would have boosted the average politician’s pay and benefits to an eye-watering $181,000.

In 2022, the average salary and benefits for 22,904 city employees amounted to $123,162 each. Should elected officials make one-third more than the average city employee, who, as I revealed in a former column, already make 50 per cent more than their Quebec civil-servant or private-sector equivalents for the same hours worked?

It really depends on how you view the role of local elected officials. More and more people are getting elected because they see it as a job. It is not. Aside from the fact it is the only occupation from which you can be peremptorily fired every four years, serving on council should be a civic duty that pays a reasonable stipend as compensation, but nothing extravagant.

You should run for public office to give back to your community, not to earn an above-average income. It should not be treated as a career in itself; indeed, you should have proven your worth to your electorate in a non-political career first.

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While admittedly the role of municipal councillor is far more onerous, the fact that board members who run foundations, McGill University or hospitals are all unpaid should temper Montreal politicians’ self-directed generosity.

Some say we should pay our elected officials more in order to attract a better quality of politician. In my experience, there is often a negative correlation. Besides, at $165,000, Montreal is already paying top dollar: I’ll let you decide if Montreal, thanks to that size of pay packet, is attracting commensurate quality in its politicians.

Even Quebec MNAs, fresh from their $30,000 raise, earn $132,000 as base salary – by far Canada’s highest provincial politicians’ emolument. Those 125 elected officials in the National Assembly are responsible for five times the population and 20 times the budget of the City of Montreal.

Yet, with the MNAs’ fringe benefits added, Montreal’s elected officials are close to matching the remuneration of their provincial peers.

Compared to that fact, $160 a head for dinner is small potatoes.

Peter F. Trent, a former inventor and businessman, served five terms as mayor of Westmount (1991-2001, 2009-2017). In 2002, as a private citizen, he led the Montreal demerger movement. His Merger Delusion was a finalist for the best Canadian political book of 2012.

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