Chilliwack city councillor’s expenses the subject of FOI request by mayor

Discussion about council expenses leads to broader call for more transparency and accountability

Councillor Sam Waddington’s expenses were $10,000 higher than any other member of Chilliwack council for 2017.

That blew up in council chambers at city hall Tuesday into a broader discussion on the need for greater transparency and accountability by council when on the taxpayer dime.

Policy changes could be coming for Chilliwack, as a result, to provide more details in future on council’s expenses incurred, and exactly how those details are made public.

Mayor Sharon Gaetz announced she had filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see the exact breakdown of Coun. Waddington’s $17,240.48 in expenses, mostly stemming from a Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference.

The FCM costs alone for Coun. Waddington, including the related conference fees plus the AGM and board meetings came to $9,728.67. Last year it was about $8,000, noted the mayor, at an April 17 meeting.

Travel costs to conferences were covered until recently because FCM collected money in a special fund to pay for the politicians. The UBCM-FCM Small Communities Travel Fund was created to financially support city reps from B.C. attending FCM Board and Standing Committee meetings. That was in force until 18 months ago, when they changed the policy to restrict the funding to smaller communities only.

The criteria were restricted in September 2017 to communities with population under 55,000. That means Chilliwack no longer has these costs covered, despite not having to pay them for years, and that is why Waddington’s travel costs were so high.

“I have to say that I think that council, for the most part, is very careful with the expenditure of taxpayer money,” Mayor Gaetz said, acknowledging that certain conference costs are “unavoidable.”

But she had pointed questions about in-room dining charges for Coun. Waddington for breakfast, on two occasions for groups of people, that were billed for about $75 and $93 each.

“That may be acceptable for Coun. Waddington, but not for me,” she said, adding that although it may be “an uncomfortable discussion,” for council, it needed to be raised. She called for greater transparency – maybe even posting expense breakdowns online.

“If you feel you can justify those, that’s between you and the taxpayer,” Mayor Gaetz said about the in-room dining charges, and the multiple trips.

Coun. Sam Waddington responded that he had no issue with more transparency and accountability, and agreed with the call for more of it.

“I am actually quite proud of this report,” he said, adding that in 2017 he counted about 50 days that he spent working on behalf of the city outside the jurisdiction at various tables.

Coun. Waddington is a member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities board, representing Chilliwack, and B.C. at the annual national conference, and at the AGM. The board meets three times a year, so with the annual AGM, and the conference it makes about five meetings a year at rotating locations across Canada.

He said after the meeting, it comes down to the difference between cost and value. The councillor was taken aback to hear that Mayor Gaetz had gone the FOI route to get his expense details. He said he would have gladly offered them if he’d been asked.

“I have never seen an FOI from one member of council about another,” Waddington said. “But when I have seen something similar the reason is bad blood between officials. It undermines good government and causes animosity.”

For the price of “eggs benedict and orange juice” if a municipal politician can get the ear of busy federal ministers or senior staff in this way, that has value for taxpayers, and the city, Waddington said. He explained that $10,000 of the $17,000 were related to flight rebooking costs necessitated by a sudden change in plans, and flights – points already explained to council.

Gaetz said she would like to see more of a policy that would have limits paying for guests, and puts the expense details of council in full online.

The annual staff report with the remuneration details and expenses filed by council for 2017 was on the agenda to be received by council, as usual this week. Council also voted to direct staff to review council’s remuneration and expenses bylaw.

Coun. Chuck Stam commented “in the vein of transparency” that the public “has the right to know” precisely what expenses are being incurred by councillors.

“I don’t think this report is fulsome enough,” he said, and said the details needed to be posted publicly whether it’s online, or in staff reports.

The staff report listed the total 2017 expenses of each council member, but no breakdown of the details. The report showed that Coun. Waddington had the highest, with a total of $17,240.48 in expenses.

The lowest were the expense totals filed by Coun. Ken Popove, at $2,191.39.

See more of the remuneration and expenses staff report in the June 19 council agenda.

The expense totals listed for 2017:

$7,583.85 – Mayor Sharon Gaetz

$5,190.48 – Coun. Sue Attrill

$7,145.76 – Coun. Chris Kloot

$4,819.48 – Coun. Jason Lum

$2,191.39 – Coun. Ken Popove

$2,592.23 – Coun. Chuck Stam

$17,240.48 – Coun. Sam Waddington


@CHWKjourno
jfeinberg@theprogress.com

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