Taxpayers covering Patrick Brown’s lavish spending on newsletters and greeting cards

·12 min read

Are you okay with paying to receive mail from a member of City Council? For most in Brampton and Mississauga, that’s not a hypothetical question.

Significant sums of taxpayer money are spent on newsletter communications in both cities. In Mississauga and the Region of Peel councillors expense their newsletters, while in Brampton a budget is set aside for these pieces of communication.

The numbers for 2020 were recently released: $132,916.31 was spent by councillors from both cities at the higher level of local government; an additional $93,425.42 from the City of Brampton budget was spent; and $63,444 by councillors in Mississauga from City accounts.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown incurred the highest newsletter cost for Region of Peel communication, with 27 percent of all regional newsletter expenses spent on his account. His $35,548.26 regional newsletter was sent to every Brampton resident. Brown’s share of local costs for his City newsletter and greeting cards, paid for by Brampton taxpayers, is unclear.

Brown said that geography, having to cover the whole city, is the reason for his high newsletter costs. Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, unlike Brown, did not use any money from the Regional newsletter budget. Brown did not respond to questions about why he sends out newsletters which promote himself. He also sent out holiday greeting cards last year paid for by Brampton taxpayers under the City’s budget.

Brampton currently allows two printed ward newsletters annually, one can be substituted for holiday greeting cards. City staff offer an à la carte selection of pre-written articles for councillors to include in their printed newsletters, along with a personalized message. These newsletters typically highlight the names and images of council members. It’s not clear why greetings cards, which provide little City information, are allowed.

Last year, in the face of COVID-19, ward newsletters were replaced with “a city-wide COVID-19 update” according to a City of Brampton spokesperson, who said the communication cost was $47,303 to print and mail. A fall newsletter was produced for councillors, but Brown opted to send holiday greeting cards instead. City staff say it included details of his New Year’s Levee and outdoor amenities.

The total 2020 cost for Brampton’s newsletter communications was $93,425.42, excluding tax.

During the 2021 budget process, Brown once again demanded there be no increase in overall spending, to achieve his third consecutive tax freeze, but the newsletter budget was increased dramatically to $303,000 to accommodate four digital newsletters per year, beginning in fall 2021. This is more than three times what was spent in 2020. This is in addition to the cost at the Region of Peel that some regional councillors can also take advantage of.

Using monthly expense reports at the City of Mississauga, The Pointer calculated that Mississauga’s City Council members claimed $63,444 in local newsletter-related costs in 2020.

The previous year posed a number of challenges for council members and their constituents.

The novel coronavirus arrived in Peel in March of last year, triggering a series of shutdowns and reopenings that are still ongoing. Schools were empty, businesses shuttered and gatherings prohibited. A mismatch of stages, phases and colour-coded zones trickled down from the provincial government, bamboozling City staff, councillors and Peel residents.

Regular email blasts using newsletter applications such as MailChimp, coupled with swift and adept social media messaging, are important to keep residents up to date. Some residents, including many seniors, would also benefit from regularly printed communications.

But that’s not what the bulk of funds spent on newsletters for elected officials in Brampton or Mississauga were dedicated to last year. Instead, 46 percent of all newsletter costs were dedicated to Region of Peel mail blasts for certain councillors, with one newsletter per official, per year.

Instead of up-to-date communications at a time when policies and pandemic dynamics were fluid, taxpayers in Peel Region paid for communications more akin to an annual flyer or school yearbook from some of their council members.

For each councillor that signs up, staff at the Region of Peel mail an annual update to every one of their residents. Of Peel’s Regional Councillors many from Mississauga opted out of the scheme: Karen Ras (Ward 2), Carolyn Parrish (Ward 5), Matt Mahoney (Ward 8), Pat Saito (Ward 9), George Carlson (Ward 11) and Mayor Crombie. Opting out saved taxpayers a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars.

Parrish, who did not use any money from her City of Mississauga budget either, did not charge taxpayers a cent for newsletters in 2020.

There are some issues with a yearly newsletter.

Even residents staying away from a computer or smartphone will be familiar with most annualized topics, while a COVID news agenda means some elements could be out of date before the ink even touches the page. Perhaps cognizant of how quickly the news cycle has changed, Brown’s end of year regional newsletter for 2020 did not include the word “COVID” even once.

If the content of annualized newsletters is outdated and of little service to residents, there is a danger taxpayer dollars are being used primarily to get the names and pictures of councillors out to the public, in an election campaign type of promotion.

Turnouts in municipal elections are notoriously low, and hovered around the 35 percent mark in Peel in the last few elections. For an uninterested local electorate, name recognition can play a significant part in returning the same councillors to office time and time again.

“One of the sub-components that are really important in shaping incumbency advantage overall is what’s called the personal vote,” Jack Lucas, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who researches the electoral advantage held by sitting councillors, told The Pointer. “This is the personal reputation and relationship that an incumbent is able to build with constituents that’s distinctive to their role as an incumbent.”

This advantage is one challengers simply don’t have. It is based on the help a councillor can offer residents, decisions they are able to make or the photo-opportunities they can attend. Crystallizing this unique advantage in a glossy, taxpayer-funded printed newsletter can compound it further.

“I think this is characteristic of a larger debate about incumbency advantage in local politics,” Lucas added. “On the one hand we do want our local representatives to be doing what they can to keep constituents informed about what they are up to, even if they’re going to put the best possible spin on that, it’s still information that their constituents might not get in other ways about what issues are on the table. On the other hand, there is little question that this does give already advantaged incumbents an even greater advantage.”

The expensive regional newsletter scheme in Peel has its usefulness hampered by its regularity. The annualized mail blast is a questionable strategy for genuine communication because different people receive information in different ways and understanding the nuances of how your residents need to be informed up-to-the-minute is vital to serving them. Some rely on print, some on their computer: annual updates offer neither in a timely way.

In its current form, councillor communication is a network of overlapping offerings, without an overall strategy.

Many councillors sign up for the expensive and annualized newsletter sent out by the Region of Peel, offering at least one print notice to their residents per year. More send print communications from their local account, while email blasts are another popular route. Facebook and Twitter are regularly used by council members for communication and advocacy, often with taxpayer-funded staff doing much of the work. Brown has a team of staff who work on his social media posts, putting together videos, doing editing and writing and taking photos of him to blanket all of Brampton with his image, all paid for by the city’s taxpayers.

While this covers a spectrum of communication techniques, it is an expensive scattergun approach. Residents who aren’t online or do not care for the constant messages put out by local elected officials, while printed newsletters go straight to the recycling bin, have little choice about how their own money is being used by the people they elect to represent their interests.

Dr. Kate Maddalena, a professor with Institute of Communications, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, says councils and councillors should do the groundwork to understand what their residents want.

“There is an amount worth investing, not just once but regularly because these things change,” she told The Pointer, suggesting every three years could be a prudent timescale to study how residents communicate. “It’s worth it to find out how people want to get their information and how they are getting their information.”

Undertaking research may come at an upfront cost, but would put resident needs (and not councillor promotion) at the heart of communication policy.

Online communication options are vast and can be tailored to different demographics. Tweets, Facebook or Whatsapp groups and email newsletters are all available to serve residents. Print too has numerous forms. Councillors could save on the cost of posting a letter to every resident in their ward by writing op-eds in community newspapers or taking out full page adverts to communicate the same information, using someone else’s distribution network.

At the Region of Peel, aside from Brown, Mississauga Ward 4 Councillor John Kovac and Ward 7 Councillor Dipika Damerla spent $22,659.99 and $18,291.43, respectively, the most after Brampton’s mayor.

Like Brown, Kovac and Damerla’s expenses can — at least partially — be explained by the size of their wards. Data from the 2016 Census show 72,700 people live in Ward 4 and 80,700 live in Ward 7, with both areas among the denser and more condo-friendly parts of Mississauga.

“As a Councillor, communicating with my residents is one of the most important functions of my office,” Damerla told The Pointer in an email. “Last year I provided residents with three newsletters, two from the City of Mississauga and one from the Region of Peel. The costs for the newsletter are largely determined by the number of copies you need to print and the number of residents you have to send them to. My ward has the highest population in Peel Region, so my printing and Canada Post costs will be higher as a result. The newsletters deliver important community information to residents and meets them right at their doorstep.”

Damerla’s newsletter does provide residents with some evergreen information unlikely to be covered by local media, including a notification that the City intends to purchase parkland in her ward. The councillor also issues a regular and detailed digital communication providing timely information around issues such as COVID-19 vaccine appointments and directing residents to her website for further updates. Learning more about her constituents and how they receive their news could allow these strategies to compliment each other and be more ward-specific, rather than offering duplication with other information resources provided by the City of Mississauga and the Region of Peel.

A recent issue experienced by Kovac, and driving the cost of his newsletter up, also hints at problems when governments or councillors simply blast printed newsletters at residents. The original print run for Ward 4’s regional newsletter came in at $10,582, but several apartment buildings mistakenly blocked the newsletters as junk mail, necessitating a reprint that pushed the cost up to $12,785.38.

“I just think this is still the tried, tested and true method,” Kovac said, telling The Pointer he focuses his newsletters on the municipal issues that raise the most complaints and confusion. “I just know that too many residents count on it and they’re not either comfortable or capable yet of being able to get that information ... in electronic form.”

The circulation of print newspapers in Canada has fallen dramatically over the past decade, while many companies have taken their marketing strategies nearly entirely digital. That doesn’t mean print communication isn’t useful in certain situations — the continued reliance of the real estate industry on written materials is testament to this — but it means printing is no longer the default answer to communication with constituents.

For digital-native generations, raised on social media, it is easy to see printing newsletters for residents as a total waste of taxpayer money, but there are some sections of the community where the practice is beneficial, to provide some updates, even if the timeliness is questionable. But even for these residents, who may prefer printed materials or lack the tools needed for regular internet updates, communication should be provided more regularly than once or twice per year.

“If you are looking at the situation in India, it is quite different from the situation in North America; print publications are on the rise,” Dr Lilia Topouzova, a historian and communications professor with the University of Toronto, explained, highlighting the need to understand cultural preferences and socioeconomic realities for residents. Many in Peel’s large South Asian-Canadian community might still prefer print if it’s what they were raised with before arriving here.

Other factors come into play. “If you’re looking at communities, even within Canada, you have to think about who has access to the internet, who has access to good broadband connections,” Topouzova said.

For elected officials in Peel, undertaking research could unlock their newsletters. In their current form, an annual mailblast from the region provides an opportunity to stay in touch and summarize key themes for the year, but the immediate benefits of such a costly approach are unclear.

“Finding out how people want that information is key,” Maddalena emphasized.

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer