October 17, 2016 Tas Britas

Who is the most expensive City Councillor in Vilnius?

People often ask me how much money City Councillors earn.

That’s a great question.

You should definitely be asking that question, because it’s your money. And the answer should be clear and simple, because it’s your money.

Short answer: The Conservatives and the Polish/Russians claim the most money, and I cost you much less than anybody else. The numbers are here: http://atviras.vilnius.lt/finansai/tarybos-nariu-atlyginimai

Unfortunately, in Vilnius City Council – it’s complicated. I will try to explain how it works, who gets how much, and how I think it should work.

For many months I have been pushing the IT department to show you all the Councillors’ wages and expenses, with clear infographics, updated live. Thanks to the amazing Povilas Poderskis and his team, you can now see this information easily. First I will explain how to interpret the information, then I’ll show you the numbers.

Sorry it took so long to bring you this information, but my fellow politicians don’t prioritise the transparency of their own income. The IT department was the only department whose funding was cut last year, so there are not enough resources to complete projects that show you how we spend your money. I have been asking for this for a year. Just saying.

Being a City Councillor is not a job

Before I explain about my wages – you should know that being a City Councillor is not a job.

Please understand this very important point. I don’t work for the government. I am the government.

I don’t have a work contract. My “employer” for tax purposes is the Municipality, but I don’t “work for” the Municipality. I work for the residents and guests of Vilnius. The Mayor is not my boss. I don’t have to go to the Municipality every day. The Municipality doesn’t tell me what to do. I am invited to meetings, not ordered to attend. I choose to go, if I want. There was no job interview, I was elected. I have no diploma and I don’t need one. I had no experience in politics but that doesn’t matter, you chose me anyway. I don’t work for the Municipality, I tell them what to do, and I check they are actually doing it, and I complain if I see them doing something which I think is bad. That’s it.

One of the things Councillors decide is – how much Councillors are paid. You can guess how that might be a bit of a problem. For example, when I made a proposal to lower our wages, my proposal was rejected by other Councillors. You see how it works?

Being a City Councillor is not a full-time job

Nobody knows this, but being a City Councillor is not a full-time job. It is a part-time job, and your private-sector boss (if you have one) has to give you time to go and do Council work. For the hours you are doing Council work, you get paid a small hourly rate as compensation, which is not as much as you get in the private sector. So, when you are working on Council business – you are losing money, unless you only work evenings and weekends, which is impossible, because public servants are only available in the daytime.

I would love to sit there all day and make your lives better, but not for minimum wage, sorry. Another limit is that you are only allowed to claim for a maximum 60 hours work per month, so if I sat there all day I would get a lot less than minimum wage overall. That’s just not practical. I love you guys, but, no.

The exception to this is the Mayor and three Vice-Mayors get a full time salary, which is tiny compared to the EU average, but it’s not bad.

City Councillors are paid three ways

OK so there’s three ways Councillors can get your money. And there’s easy ways to cheat.

Sorry it’s so complicated. It’s almost like the system was designed to be complicated, so you won’t have the patience to read the whole of this article and find out how stupid it is.

1. Councillors are paid for every hour they spend in Council meetings, Committee meetings, and Fraction meetings.

When you go to a Council meeting, you sign in and out with the secretary, so they know exactly how long you were in the meeting and you are paid for that time. This is very transparent and would be hard to fake because everyone in the room can see if you are sitting in your chair or not, and every vote is recorded so it’s easy to know if you were there.

When you go to a Committee meeting, the Committee Secretary records your attendance. This is also quite hard to fake because Committees are made up of members from all parties, so everybody can see who attends and who doesn’t, and if the paper records are not correct then there’s lots of witnesses motivated to report the secretary for lying.

Fraction meetings are different. A Fraction is a group of people who all agree to work together, normally because they are all in the same political party. The leader of the Fraction records attendance, not an independent secretary. This means that it’s very easy to fake the attendance records of a Fraction meeting, because the leader of the Fraction is in control, and he probably doesn’t want an embarassing corruption scandal in his Fraction, so he’s not going to tell anybody he’s faking the records. Theoretically he could declare a meeting that never existed, and everyone would get paid. He can certainly mark his absent friend down as “attending”, and his friend will get paid. Nobody will notice and nobody is motivated to care.

2. Councillors are paid for hours working on their own

Councillors are paid for up to 60 hours per month for preparing for meetings, attending events, meeting residents, and working on solving their problems. You have to declare these hours every month.

The cool thing about this is that nobody ever checks your declarations, because it’s impossible to check.

First of all, it would take a massive privacy invasion to look at all my Facebook chats* to find which ones were “Council business”.

Secondly it would take a huge amount of time to do that.

Thirdly, even I don’t know how many hours I spent “meeting residents and solving their problems”, because I am not going to start a clock every time someone in a bar tells me a story about rubbish collection, or I find an interesting article about stadium construction financing.

*why do I use Facebook chat not the official Municipality email system? Well, people contact me on Facebook, not email. That’s what they do. I am supposed to serve them as quickly and as approachably as possible, not tell them to “send me an official email”. Also, the Municipality email system sucks. Did I mention that the IT department budget was cut? Yes I think I mentioned that.

So what happens? Every month the secretary gives you a piece of paper, you invent some fake numbers of hours you think you maybe spent working, and you write them down and sign it. And the number always adds up to 60, because that’s the maximum. Everybody knows this system is stupid and fake, but we do it anyway.

As a compromise, I only claim 40 hours, because somehow this seems to be more honest than claiming the maximum when I have no idea what the real number is. Also, 40 hours is the number other Councils pay, so I am unilaterally rejecting the previous decision to increase the Vilnius limit to 60 hours.

I have made attempts to fix this problem, and many Councillors agree with me, but there are laws that stop us fixing the laws, and the laws are national level so we can’t overrule them. We must be paid by the hour, and that means we have to declare how many hours we worked, even if we don’t know. We can’t just be paid a flat fee.

It gets worse. They have to put those 60 hours somewhere on a calendar. So they just spread them out, 3 hours a day here and there, as if those were the actual hours that we worked. Everybody knows we didn’t actually work in those hours, but we have to sign a piece of paper saying that we did. I often work in the middle of the night, but that’s illegal, so we all just pretend I worked in the day, and I sign the paper.

Also, if go out of the country, we have to tell the secretary to pretend we were not working on those days, because working outside of Lithuania is not allowed without registering an official trip(!). Technically I shouldn’t be trying to solve your problems while sitting on a beach with a smartphone, but I do it anyway. F*** the system.

These laws were written before the internet existed.

3. Councillors are refunded for some of their expenses

I don’t know much about this, but apparently Councillors can collect receipts when they buy pens, or when they buy fuel to drive around the city meeting people, or they get a taxi or whatever. There’s a maximum amount you can claim, it’s something like 300 EUR, which is a lot of pens and taxis.

I don’t know much about claiming expenses because I don’t do it.

I have claimed zero expenses since day one.

It’s not clear to me the things we are allowed to claim for, and I never tried, and it seems like transparency theatre. It takes a lot of time for the secretaries to check all the receipts, and it’s silly.

For example I hear that you can claim for paper, but not for a USB stick. You can claim for a taxi from a wine bar to your flat after a “meeting” where you were “discussing Council matters”, but not for a book about the matter you were discussing. You can claim for petrol expenses, but it’s not easy to know exactly how many litres of petrol you burnt while driving to a meeting.

And if you just stick all the petrol in your wife’s car then nobody will check anyway.

Who gets most of your money?

The raw data is available here, if you’re a geek: https://github.com/vilnius/taryba

The nice visualisations are here, updated live: http://atviras.vilnius.lt/finansai/tarybos-nariu-atlyginimai

Here is the final chart, I made a screenshot today:

atlyginimai

The slightly paler colour is expenses, the darker colour is wages.

As you can see, the Mayor and the three Vice-Mayors get a full-time wage, and one of them spends three times as much on “paper and taxis” than the others. He is Valdas Benkunskas, a Conservative. The Conservatives are marked in blue.

The most expensive ordinary Councillor is also a Conservative, Violeta Podolskaitė. In fact, you can see quite easily that all the Conservatives are in the top half of the list. This means that either they are working harder than others, or they are lying. I am not saying they are lying, I am saying we have no way of checking, because the system isn’t transparent. Maybe they really are working on City business, not just Party business. And maybe they have a very good reason for using expensive taxis instead of our wonderful public trolleybuses.

The dark red people are the Polish/Russian Fraction. They are mostly in the top half. They must be working very hard too. They would probably get even more money if they didn’t keep leaving Council meetings hours before the end. I suppose it takes a lot of hours to figure out how to maximise your expense claims. Maybe they go home to do that.

The second most expensive Councillor is Gediminas Rudzionis of the Order and Justice party (yellow). He’s the guy who wanted to build a huge Mussolini-style monument in the centre of the city, the guy who insulted the Roma community in a committee meeting, the guy whose party’s logo looks like the Nazi party’s logo. And his party were caught buying votes in the recent election. That guy. In an almost completely untransparent system, he gets on average 644.58EUR of your money every month. When I suggested reducing our wages, he strongly objected, shouting that if I wanted to reduce my own wages then I simply should declare less. What he doesn’t understand is that I already do declare less, and I want him to get less too. Fun fact – One of the Order and Justice party’s members is down near the bottom of the list, because he almost never turns up.

Due to the recent corruption scandal in the Liberal party, you are probably interested in what’s happening with the orange colour. There are oranges everywhere, but mostly in the bottom half, the cheapest half. The most expensive Liberal is Rita Balčiūnienė. She is a Committee Chair, which obviously means more work (and a lot of paper). Also, her Committee deals with all the microdistricts, so she probably has to drive around a lot. Nobody knows the truth, because the system is not transparent. Maybe I am defending her because I like the Liberals and I am on her Committee. Maybe she acts nice but she’s secretly evil. We can never find out.

There is another liberal party, the Freedom Union. They are the previous Mayor’s party. They are also mostly in the bottom half, and the previous Mayor is right down the bottom. I guess after they lost the election due to corruption rumours, they decided it would be best not to fake their expense claims under the new Mayor. Good idea.

The Social Democrats are all in the bottom half, and their Vice-Mayor claims the least expenses. Unlike their colleagues at national level, there doesn’t seem to be much suspicious stuff happening here. But we don’t know, because the system is not transparent.

There is another party called the Lithuania List, and they are all in the low-earning section. This is consistent with their anti-corruption message. At least it looks good, but we don’t know the truth, because the system is not transparent. They could be cheating on a bit of petrol while someone who claims more is legitimately using a lot of paper. Who knows? Nobody.

Who is the cheapest City Councillor in Vilnius?

It’s me, of course. I didn’t go into politics to make money, and I don’t like taking your money when there is no transparent system to account for it. The amount of money I get is not related to the amount of work I do, and I am honest about that. That’s why I am down at the bottom of the list. I get 215EUR/month, and the most expensive Councillor gets 652EUR.

Here is why I am the cheapest City Councillor:

  • I am not in any Fraction, so I don’t get paid for Fraction meetings
  • I claim only 40 hours per month for extra work, not the maximum 60
  • I never claim expenses, which is nearly half the money available

I am sure all my colleagues have very interesting stories about why they claim so much money, but that’s not my point. My point is we can’t check their stories, so what’s the point of pretending we are “controlling” these expenses when we are not?

What would be a better system for paying City Councillors transparently?

It’s obvious that this system doesn’t make sense and it needs to change. For many boring legal and political reasons, the system can’t change easily, because we still have Soviet employment laws and people who freak out about changing them. I have tried many times to find a way to make the system more transparent but my colleagues and Parliament disagree with me.

It’s not polite to complain about a problem without offering a solution, so here’s what I would propose, if it was legally possible.

Pay Councillors a flat monthly fee

We need to stop signing documents with numbers that everybody knows are faked. It doesn’t matter if I worked at three o’clock in the morning, or fifteen hours all on one day, in Lithuania or in Greece. I shouldn’t be forced to sign a lie, just to comply with regulations. It’s also impossible for me to track my time and to know how many hours I worked, so please stop asking me to sign things that everybody knows are incorrect and unauditable. You can see from the graph that most people get around 300EUR, so just give us all 300EUR and stop generating stupid paperwork that doesn’t help anyone at all.

If you really must pay Councillors for “hours worked” – why not just pay them for hours in Council and Committee meetings, which are easily recorded and very hard to fake?

Stop paying Councillors’ expenses

It’s a lot of work to collect, check and calculate receipts for expenses, to argue about them and to figure out which ones are legitimate. Why not just stop paying expenses? Pay a bigger wage, and then it’s up to the Councillor to spend what he really needs, from his own pocket. I think you might find that Councillors take less taxis and use less paper. You can see from the graph that 500EUR a month in total would be a suitable compromise, and it would save a lot of money if we didn’t have to count all those receipts. Our secretaries could do something more useful, like helping us to find information, so we can help you more.

Sure, some Councillors would get much more money than they need for taxis. And some would get less at the end of the day, because their expenses are essential, for whatever reason. But that’s life. We’re politicians. This is not a job, this is serving the good people of the City. This is defending the constitution and flying the flag high. You don’t start moaning for an extra 50EUR of taxpayer money to fund your taxi addiction when you’re defending the Constitution, do you? I don’t. Maybe you should go and get a different job if that’s how you feel.

Don’t pay Councillors more

There is an argument that Councillors are underpaid, which encourages corruption and stops them spending much time on their work. Like I said, I would love to sit there all day working for you and earning enough money to quit my other jobs, but…

One of the things I like about the Council is that it attracts people from different parts of the community. It’s not all career politicians, and it’s closer to the people than the Parliament is. You can’t have people close to the community if they spend all day in the Municipality bubble, working a full time job as a politician.

The experience I get in my other jobs helps me to be a better Councillor. I see nightlife problems because I work in the music industry. The career politicians don’t see those problems, because they don’t go to those places and they don’t understand how that industry works. While the careerists are sitting in a Fraction meeting discussing their party’s election strategy, I am out in a bar, seeing how the staff control violent customers, and watching how taxi drivers block the traffic outside.

You pay me, I drink

Technically, when I work on nightlife issues, I am declaring hours spent drinking alcohol in bars as “hours spent meeting with residents and discussing solutions to their problems”. And that’s totally legit because that’s what I am actually doing. Already I have changed one very important alcohol licensing decision because I knew stuff that nobody else on the Council knew. I know this stuff because I actually talk to bar owners and drink alcohol in bars. And you are paying me for those hours, dear taxpayer, because I was elected to improve nightlife.

The problem is – There’s no way you can know if I am lying or not. You have to trust me, and my 50 colleagues.

I can tell you honestly that I am lying. I know I am not declaring these numbers accurately, but I sign the declarations anyway, and that’s the definition of corruption.

The system of paying Councillors needs to be changed because fake transparency is corrupt. Doubts about the issue of politicians’ income are damaging to democracy itself. As a member of the Committee responsible for democracy itself, I publish this article in the hope that my colleagues who are elected to national government will remember to fix this problem when they get there.

Yours sincerely and faithfully,

Mark Adam Harold
Vilnius City Councillor

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