CTV News: ‘Does it pass the smell test?’: City tax bill leaflets featuring photos of mayor stir controversy

Rose City Politics host Don Merrifield in Windsor, Ont. on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (Chris Campbell/CTV News Windsor)
Rich Garton
Rich Garton, CTV Windsor News Reporter, Follow Contact

Flyers mailed out with the final tax-bill featuring Windsor council’s recent accomplishments but boasting photos of the mayor are stirring up debate, with some calling the leaflets “unethical.”

The leaflets in question tout record investments in Windsor’s auto industry, including the $5 billion dollar LGES-Stellantis battery plant investment and other tidbits from the 10-year capital budget.

“This is a promotional insert that is in the tax bills that is advertising and promoting the city locally, which I have a statutory obligation to do as the head of council. It’s in the municipal act,” says Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens.

But it’s rubbing some the wrong way, with critics arguing the slip features only photos of the mayor, and no members of council.

“What bothers people is that this is pretty much blatantly campaign literature and being sent out really at the expense of the taxpayers,” says Don Merrifield, a panelist on the Rose City Politics podcast. “The mayor’s the only picture on there, why isn’t all of council on there because they all had a hand in bringing these investments in.”

Merrifield says during a campaign, these leaflets would typically cost tens of thousands of dollars to print and send to every homeowner.

Merrifield argues the tax-bill inserts could give the mayor an unfair advantage in the upcoming election because his political opponents have a maximum spending limit and because these leaflets came with city mail already being sent, it cost the mayor’s office much less.

But to date, Dilkens has not filed nomination papers or announced whether he’s running for re-election in 2022.

“Technically did he break any rules? Probably not, that’s for people smarter than me,” says Merrifield. “But does it pass the smell test? Was it ethical? Sometimes what’s right is more important than what’s legal.”

Dilkens says the inserts cost money to print but confirms they cost nothing extra to include in the mail out, noting neither his name nor city branding is on the flyer.

The outcry, according to the mayor, is nothing more than his political opponents looking for a pound of flesh.

“But if you think I’m going to be a wallflower and shy away from promoting great things that are happening here in our community, including a $5 billion investment that’s creating 3,000 jobs and will have a generational impact on the future of Windsor and Essex County, you got another thing coming,” says Dilkens.

UWindsor Political scientist Lydia Miljan says the print-outs have the appearance of a political ad because it ties Dilkens’ personal brand alone to these investments.

“The problem is the optics of this particular leaflet,” Miljan says. “My reading of the municipal act, I don’t think there is anything specifically that he’s violated within it, but I do think it’s an ethics issue.”

Miljan says whomever runs for mayor in the upcoming election will already be at a disadvantage simply because of the mayor’s place at the helm of council and the media attention that comes along with the role, in which Dilkens has served for nearly two terms.

“The fact remains, there’s always going to be an incumbent advantage simply because the person who’s sitting as the mayor has name recognition,” she says. “What this does is it reinforces that advantage.”

“If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, mayor McDuck is running for office again”

Don Merrifield Jr.

Dilkens wouldn’t confirm whether he’s running for re-election.

“I am the mayor today. And there will be lots of time to figure out what the future is moving forward. But I’m quite aware of the fact that if I said I’m running for mayor today, everything stops,” he says. “There is still too much work for us to do and I have a four-year term. Not a three-and-a-half-year term, a four-year term.

Mayor Dilkens encourages anyone who feels the municipal code of conduct has been violated to file a complaint with the integrity commissioner.

“People have made several complaints against many members of council, including myself, over the years. And I don’t shy away from that process.”

Miljan says taxpayers will ultimately have the final say at the ballot box on Oct. 24 and if Dilkens runs, she believes this could potentially become a campaign issue.