Victoria taxpayers will continue to pick up the tab for providing city councillors and senior staff with a catered lunch during daytime meetings, at a cost of about $10,000 a year.
Councillors Marianne Alto and Charlayne Thornton-Joe tried to remove the lunches from the city’s budget during deliberations Friday. They maintained that it was an unnecessary expense and that councillors would be better off getting out of city hall for some fresh air and buying their own meals.
They were outvoted by other councillors, some of whom justified the free lunch on the grounds that they have stressful jobs and don’t make a lot of money, and that other government bodies provide similar lunches. They said sharing a meal improves collegiality and taking time to “break some bread together” is in keeping with Indigenous traditions.
Staff say the catered lunches, which began last May, are costing the city about $1,000 a month and, at the current pace of meetings, will likely exceed the budget estimate of $10,000 a year.
Alto, who initiated the debate, said councillors have been making tough budget decisions for weeks and at times have wrestled with spending as little as $1,800 on some items, while trying to limit tax increases for residents.
She said there have been a number of comments during those discussions that council doesn’t have to spend every cent at its disposal.
“And I agree with that,” she said. “Therefore, I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to continue to allow the taxpayer to pay for our lunches when, in every other circumstance when people want to get together in the workplace to provide an opportunity for collegial interaction, they bring their own brown-bag lunches. I don’t see that we’re in any other position than that.”
But Coun. Ben Isitt said he’s learning that Indigenous traditions support the idea that meeting participants “break some bread together” before getting on with important work. He noted, for instance, that every meeting of the City Family, which includes councillors as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous appointees, begins with catered food.
“I think that it’s very supportable,” he said. “It allows for some collegiality before the City Family undertakes the challenging work.”
Isitt argued as well that other local government bodies, boards and committees make similar accommodations, “reflecting the fact that it’s atypical work, it often involves unusual hours, often involves substantial overtime with no additional compensation attached to that overtime work, and it involves stress,” he said.
“There’s certainly a number of stressful jobs, but the nature of a political system — it’s stressful for the political actors, but it’s also a different and more stressful environment for the employees who are on the firing line subject to scrutiny by elected officials and by the public.”
Coun. Sarah Potts said there are a number of studies showing the benefits of providing lunch to employees. She noted that council and staff are getting “zero waste” lunches that contribute to increased productivity, a healthier workforce and a stronger connection between employees. “And the money isn’t just going out the window,” she said. “All that money is going to support local business.”
She added that it’s important when making such decisions to not feed “the perspective or this perception of these fat-cat politicians getting all these perks, because everyone knows how much we make and, honestly, for me, the lunches really do make a difference.”
Councillors are paid $45,384 a year with an annual increase tied to inflation, according to figures provided by the city.
Thornton-Joe countered Potts’ arguments by noting that local businesses would still benefit if councillors left city hall at lunch and bought their own food
“I think when we weren’t getting catering paid for, we supported more local businesses because we all went in 10 different directions,” she said.
Thornton-Joe added that it would be healthier for councillors and staff, and better for decision-making, if they got out of city hall for a brief period.
“We sit here and staff sit here,” she said. “We don’t get a break, we don’t get to get some fresh air. In the past, we used to go for a walk, get some lunch, spend some time to be refreshed to come back to meetings.
“And we’re making decisions exhausted.”
In the end, Alto and Thornton-Joe were the only councillors to support getting rid of the catered lunches. Mayor Lisa Helps and councillors Isitt, Potts, Jeremy Loveday, Sharmarke Dubow and Geoff Young all voted to keep them.