City staff hide information on out-of-control salary increases during pandemic
More than 130 non-union City of Brampton employees were added to 2020’s sunshine list. No explanation has been provided for the alarming salary hikes during the pandemic, despite demands for transparency from some council members.
Attempts to find out how certain salary, bonus and benefit increases, which appear to be out of line with council-approved amounts, were handed out have been met with silence or stonewalling by some senior staff.
The City’s senior solicitor, Sameer Akhtar, and Clerk Peter Fay have been questioned recently about why the public keeps being shut out of discussions of public interest, as issues are routinely pulled into in camera sessions behind closed doors.
According to a staff report shared with councillors, but not available to the public, there are 428 non-union employees on the 2020 Ontario public salary disclosure list. The Province publishes this list annually to show taxpayers how their money is being spent on labour costs in the public sector.
City Councillor Jeff Bowman has attempted to access this information for weeks after asking CAO David Barrick for the salary and bonus increases of non-union employees who appeared on the sunshine list in 2018, 2019 and 2020, with proper disclosure of year-over-year increases while Mayor Patrick Brown simultaneously forced tax freezes for the overall City budget.
Councillor Jeff Bowman has continued to push for transparency on salary increases for city staff.
(Image from The Pointer files)
While the sunshine list is available to the public, and identifies the name and job description of each public-sector employee on the list, it does not indicate whether they are part of a union.
The report Bowman asked for after the 2020 sunshine list was released, revealing shocking increases for many senior staff, including what appear to be excessive vehicle allowances for some who are not even entitled to such a benefit, was originally to be presented at the June 2 City Council meeting.
But according to Bowman, HR director Sandeep Aujla was unable to submit the report on time. At a June 9 committee meeting, Bowman had to add the report to the agenda himself.
It was the first time anyone was seeing it and discussions were postponed to June 16, when Bowman sent the report back to Barrick and his staff because it was not what he requested.
Aujla has been absent from these meetings since June 16. Michael Davidson, commissioner of corporate support services, said he was taking on the role of acting director of HR in Aujla’s absence.
It’s unclear why she has not been present.
After the report was handed to councillors last week, but not made available to the public, Bowman expressed his ongoing concern that the democratic process in Brampton is being dangerously subverted.
He referred to the report multiple times during the open session of the meeting and said he might get in trouble as it appeared once again that senior staff and Brown intended to pull the discussion on the report behind closed doors.
Brown has failed to explain why he oversaw the hiring of Barrick, after his scandalous behaviour in Niagara Region including allegations that he handed out lucrative perks to close associates while he briefly headed the local conservation authority before he was fired.
Now, following Brown’s decision to oversee his hiring for Brampton’s top bureaucratic job, Barrick is being grilled over the excessive salary, bonus and benefit increases he has handed out, while his staff try to prevent the public from finding out about it.
Barrick handpicked many of his friends from Niagara to take on senior roles in Brampton, despite their lack of experience, just like him. The CAO had not managed even a small city department before Brown tapped him for the job to run the ninth largest municipality in the country.
Brampton CAO David Barrick
(Image from City of Brampton/Youtube)
Bowman and others are now trying to find out how some of the senior staff have enjoyed such large increases in pay, during the pandemic and without council approval.
“What is it on this report that prevents us from being totally transparent, and letting the public see these names and numbers? I don't get it,” Bowman said in frustration at last week’s City Council meeting.
He, along with councillors Martin Medeiros and Gurpreet Dhillon, has recently expressed frustration over the handling of important public interest issues behind closed doors, a violation of the Municipal Act which makes clear that only a very narrow set of topics are to be discussed outside of public view, in closed session.
“The information that you have been provided is different from the information that is provided in compliance with the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act,” Akhtar said. He said the year-over-year information available in the report councillors were given was not in the publicly facing sunshine list database.
His claim for hiding the information from the public made little sense, as Akhtar once again appeared to reveal his lack of understanding of the relevant legislation.
Council is not allowed to keep the year-over-year salary and bonus increases from the public, as this does not fall under the limited types of information to be dealt with in camera (including details of real estate transactions, personal matters of identifiable individuals, ongoing litigation, client advice, ongoing negotiations and commercially confidential information).
All other information is required under law to be dealt with in full view of the public and the taxpayers council members are elected to represent.
In 2019, there were 336 employees on the sunshine list, Bowman said, reading off the internal report in open session. The additional 92 positions in 2020 represented a 21.5 percent increase.
Bowman said 92 is not the right number and the actual number of additional employees on the sunshine list in 2020 is closer to 132. He explained to The Pointer that the figure claimed by staff does not account for roughly 40 non-union staff who were not even previously employed by the City.
In 2015, following a third-party auditor general report, former mayor Linda Jeffrey fired the CAO at the time for not freezing non-union salaries, despite warnings they were increasing at an unsustainable rate.
Council hired Harry Schlange who immediately cut non-union positions dramatically and reduced labour costs.
Brown, who claims to want to cut costs, has done so for services and infrastructure, but has allowed lavish pay increases for the senior staff who carry out his political mandate.
The number of non-union staff added to the sunshine list has steadily increased since he was elected. The 305 non-union employees on the 2018 list were paid an estimated $38 million; 336 employees were paid $42 million in 2019; and 428 non-union staff were paid $55 million in 2020, Bowman read from the report.
It represents an alarming 45 percent increase in non-union labour costs since Brown was elected on a promise of being more responsible with taxpayers’ money. Instead, he has cut services and badly needed infrastructure to move the city forward, while handsomely rewarding those senior bureaucrats who follow his orders through Barrick.
Recent allegations of widespread corruption inside city hall were made by a senior staffer who provided The Pointer with texts from Brown to her showing the mayor secretly directed senior City staff to campaign for Peter MacKay's federal Conservative leadership bid last year.
Now, questions are being raised about whether Brown has created a culture that rewards those who do his political bidding.
It’s unclear if the figures in the report include the full compensation for senior staff that taxpayers have to cover, including car allowances, other benefits and perks and bonuses.
“There’s a huge jump there,” Bowman said during the meeting, and the numbers were not even adding up.
Richard Forward, the City’s planning commissioner (hired from Barrie where Brown started his political career) made nearly $235,000 in 2020. This is a 17 percent increase from Rob Elliott, who filled the position before Forward joined. He made $201,000 in 2018.
Srikanthan (Babu) Nagalingam, Mayor Brown’s chief of staff, was not on the list in 2019 but did appear on the 2020 list with a salary over $121,000. Even if Nagalingam made $99,999 in 2019 (just enough to keep him off the sunshine list) his current salary would be a 21 percent jump.
Bowman questioned how 132 non-union employees were added to the list when the 2020 budget only approved 76 new staff additions. Staff explained hires made partway through 2019 may not have come up on the 2019 list but would on the 2020 list. It’s also possible that some staff who were just below the $100,000 threshold to make the list in 2019, crossed over in 2020 because of pay increases that put them above $100,000.
Davidson was not able to answer a majority of the questions members raised and directed them to other staff in the HR department.
Staff said the 2020 increase could be due to employees moving up in their positions and receiving a pay increase, qualifying for the sunshine list. While Bowman said this could be possible, it does not explain the situation for all employees.
According to the City’s salary administration policy, promotion for non-union positions can only lead to a 10 percent increase from the base salary or grade minimum of the job, whichever is greater. Grade minimum is defined as the “lower limit of the salary range” in the City’s policy.
Council approved salary increases within the same job are far below this, with a ceiling around 3 percent. But according to the sunshine list it appears a number of senior staff received increases well above what is allowed.
In critical retention cases, where an employee can’t be let go, and is receiving the highest pay they can for their job, “a one-time payment of up to 5 percent may be considered.”
According to the June 16 report Bowman sent back, 12 staffers got a promotion and an average increase of 11.7 percent; seven employees were critically retained and saw an average increase of 17.5 percent.
The list council was provided with reportedly uses different job titles for employees in 2020 compared to 2019. “It seems to me that we were giving people, or moving people up and giving new titles to them, during 2020, during COVID,” Bowman said.
Staff explained a title change could come if an employee is promoted or is filling a vacant position. It’s not clear how many staffers fell into this category. No staff fit the allowance for a large raise due to an expanded role after a job evaluation.
Recent benefits and perks for certain senior staff also seem to be outside the rules.
Aujla, the head of HR who appears to be on leave, herself received a taxable benefit of $16,787 in 2020 (it’s unclear if this was for an annual car allowance which staff can use toward a vehicle or can pocket). Her counterpart in Mississauga, Lori Kelly, who has the exact same title, director of human resources, received $666 in taxable benefits last year, indicating she did not get a car allowance.
Recently, it appears lavish increases, large bonuses and excessive perks such as car allowances have been handed out to many of the most senior staff. Some councillors, led by Bowman, are demanding a full accounting and transparency to determine what needs to be done to protect taxpayers.
Debra King, who manages salaries and benefits for the City, a gatekeeper role that’s supposed to ensure out-of-line increases do not occur, saw her own salary jump from $138,364 in 2019, to $180,661 in 2020, a 31 percent increase (it’s possible she received some sort of special payout, possibly from a retirement account). Prior to that, her increase from 2018 to 2019, while she held the exact same position, was 3.5 percent, which was still above normal increases based on previous formulas.
Communications Operator Sandra Smith saw her salary go from $100,928 in 2018, to $113,632 in 2019 and $132,413 in 2020, a 32 percent increase in two years, while she held the same job title.
Brampton Fire Chief William Boyes, known to play hockey with Mayor Brown, saw his salary spike from $181,100 in 2018 to $221,178 in 2020, a 22 percent increase.
Prior to Brown’s election, Brampton Transit General Manager Alex Milojevic received a salary of $177,438 in 2017 and taxable benefits of $10,322. In 2020, his salary had jumped to $221,543 and his taxable benefits spiked to $17,490, meaning in three years his compensation went up 27 percent.
There are dozens of other examples of senior, non-union staff at the City who have enjoyed lavish perks and salary increases since Brown became mayor.
The current director of Economic development, Clare Barnett, made almost $198,000 in salary and benefits in 2020, compared to the $161,700 earned in 2018 by Bob Darling, who held the same position, on top of overseeing the entire culture division (which included overseeing the City's three theatres, its tourism operation and all City-run events). Darling was let go in 2019. Barnett received a 23 percent increase from what was paid to Darling, despite her much smaller role.
Barnett’s $17,300 taxable benefit in 2020 could be for a vehicle allowance, something Darling, whose taxable benefit in 2018 was just $760, never received. It’s a pattern under Barrick’s role as CAO, handing out such perks without getting approval from council members.
It’s unclear why the City would have been handing out lavish benefits, possibly for taxpayer-funded cars, during the pandemic, when so many residents have struggled to make ends meet and while senior staff have not even worked at City Hall, staying at home throughout most of the emergency.
The City was warned against staff pay increases and costly perks without proper justification in a 2015 report by former Ontario auditor general Jim McCarter, who found salaries were getting out of control.
“It's a dangerous path to be on when we're spending the majority of all we bring in tax dollars, on salaries,” Bowman said, especially during COVID when part-time staff members were laid off.
Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros voiced many of the same concerns, asking how staff raises of this scale could be possible with three consecutive tax freezes. Seeing such high increases, especially during COVID, is “counter-sensible”.
“You can’t have a tax freeze and then keep spending. Something’s going to hit the floor… you’re going to get a tsunami, financial mess, that we're all going to sit around and look at each other after and say, ‘We dipped into the reserves for this, we put a tax freeze and yet we've increased spending on staff’.”
This is part of the concern Bowman had been raising for weeks, to the dismay of councillors loyal to Brown.
Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros says the non-union salary increases are not sustainable.
(Image from The Pointer Files)
Regional Councillor Rowena Santos said the sunshine list doesn't account for cost of living, and inflation, and hasn't changed its threshold since 1996. If this is taken into consideration for the next list, “that number would look a lot smaller for the organization for 2021,” staff said.
The justification makes little sense, as inflation in Ontario has been consistent, prior to the pandemic, at a little less than 2 percent annually for more than a decade, while Brampton non-union salary costs have increased at about seven times that rate since Santos and Brown were elected. They even went up dramatically when there was very little inflation during the pandemic.
Bowman was quick to point out the flaws in their claims. “You would think that if that was in alignment, the number of people who grow on the sunshine list would be in proportion to [the increase]. But it's not. It's 21 percent.”
Commissioner Michael Davidson said there was an “attempt” to follow the rules. “I think there may be individual instances that may or may not actually add up to any significant amount. That could be from taking positions, say, an acting position where they might affect their salaries and go above the 10 percent increase at that point of time.”
While Santos, who has been loyal to Brown and Barrick throughout the recent series of scandals that have rocked City Hall, was satisfied with the response, Bowman and Medeiros were not. “What I heard, they can do whatever they want, because you're following policies, procedures, yet, when you see some of the salary increases, it really struck me,” Medeiros said. “It’s really out of context of what we’re doing in terms of setting policies and procedures and political direction of council.”
During June 16 discussions when Bowman asked for the report to be done again, Brown said, in full view of the public, “I think it's the responsibility of councillors to do this type of due diligence to look at every aspect of the corporation.”
But when the report, privy only to council, was discussed, Brown changed his tone. “I get frustrated every time we have this discussion on the sunshine list, because it really is an outdated conversation given it was set up provincially.”
He went off on a tangent, explaining the City is watching its spending, and the City has “collective agreements that we are proud to have,” referencing union employees, who have nothing to do with the non-union concerns councillors have been raising, especially since Barrick and many of his friends stepped into high-paying jobs.
When Bowman reminded the mayor his direction for proper labour cost disclosures only dealt with non-union positions, Brown didn’t respond. The mayor also did not comment on the apparent violation of the City’s own policies, which are supposed to limit salary and bonus increases.
Santos and Regional Councillor Paul Vicente said if more control is needed, council should take action and perhaps present a motion so these questions don’t come up after the list is published. Bowman told The Pointer that's not something he will be doing. He said at the meeting it's the job of managers, directors and commissioners to go through salary increases to make sure already established rules are not being broken and taxpayers are being protected.
“What I do know is that we as elected officials are expected to look out for the best interests of the taxpayer, and if we just ignore something like this, I don’t feel we are taking that accountability seriously, especially during the year of COVID 2020,” he told The Pointer.
Email: [email protected]
Tel: 416 890-7643
COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you.
Submit a correction about this story