Region clamps down on expenses
After hours of debate and loads of controversy, not to mention lots of taxpayers’ dollars, a new expense policy could be shutting off the taps on regional council’s big spenders.
And as rules are further developed during committee meetings in the weeks to come, Regional Chair Alan Caslin said he hopes Niagara’s newly approved interim expense claim policy will be tightened even more.
Caslin said the policy approved Thursday is a first for Niagara Region. Prior to that, he said expense forms were processed rather than approved.
“Council has never imparted the authority to me to review or approve expenses. Councillors’ submissions were dependent upon what the councillor files,” he said, in an interview Friday.
But now that the new interim policy is in place, expense claims that don’t meet requirements can be dismissed, or, Caslin added, referred to the audit committee and council for review.
After hearing concerns about specific aspects of the policy - such as a 15-day time limit on filing expenses - Caslin said he asked councillors to approve the policy on an interim basis, giving them an opportunity to further refine the policy at an upcoming corporate services committee meeting.
“We can work on all those fine details to make sure we get it right and everyone on council is satisfied,” he said.
Asked if he was concerned the policy could be watered down during committee level discussions, Caslin said, “I see it being made stronger.”
“There were a couple of items that people picked up on that they wanted to make sure were tight, to make sure they were used for the right purpose,” he said.
The discussion regarding eligible and ineligible expenses became heated when legal costs incurred by St. Catharines Couns. Brian Heit and Kelly Edgar were lumped in with those of St. Catharines Coun. Andy Petrowski – who claimed about $44,500 for taking several councillors to court in a failed attempt to prevent the release of three integrity commissioner reports about his behaviour.
Although Niagara Falls Coun. Selina Volpatti later withdrew her motion, she initially called for censure of Petrowski, Heit and Edgar - resulting in Edgar storming out of the meeting in frustration.
“It was ridiculous,” Edgar said, Friday. “It was a stupid motion. I was astounded. It was a huge blindside and I couldn’t believe those councillors would do that.”
Pelham Mayor David Augustyn defended Heit and Edgar during the meeting, saying the legal fees of about $12,500 they incurred were the result of doing their jobs as regional councillors “in good faith,” and their costs should be covered under the Region’s 2003 legal indemnification policy. In comparison, the new expense policy specifically identifies legal costs related to complaints under the code of conduct – such as those filed by Petrowski – as ineligible expenses.
The expense policy also requires councillors to use the most economic form of transportation available, requires receipts for all costs except mileage, and places limits on some expenses - such as a $65 per day allowance for councillors attending conferences or conventions.
Caslin said councillor expenses will also be posted on the Region’s website, as soon as possible - depending on “how fast the Region’s IT department execute the request.”
“That’s what we’re trying to determine right now ... I know our IT department is going to be putting its best effort forward to get it online as quickly as they can,” he said.
Although posting the expenses of councillors could be viewed as a way to shame big spenders, Caslin said it could also demonstrate the work councillors have done for constituents.
“Quite frankly, how many conferences have they gone to, have they gotten anything out of it, had meetings with constituents and businesses? A lot of that is implicated in the expenses that are submitted, because some councillors do a heck of a lot more than others in terms of effort for their position,” Caslin said. “I can’t stress that enough. There are some councillors who are fully engaged and actively promoting Niagara in a business sense, a community sense, that participate so much more than other councillors.”
Those details, Caslin added, will also be included in the online expense reports.
Edgar said he welcomes the opportunity to share his expenses.
Several councillors welcomed the transparency related to posting their expenses online.
“I have nothing to hide. Nothing at all,” Edgar said. “I think some councillors seem to take advantage of the public purse. They’re always talking about how they’re there for the taxpayer, but they sure don’t mind spending the taxpayers money on themselves.”
Caslin said efforts to develop the policy began this summer, when he noticed “some of the egregious expenses that were coming through.”
He said regional staff investigated how other municipalities deal with council expenses, and ultimately drafted a policy for Niagara.
Heit said he too began researching the expenses of several of his fellow councillors after he learned in the spring about some of “the huge expenses” being claimed.
He said he hoped to determine “why some councillors had such huge thousand-dollar phone bills in a month,” but when he asked for more information he said he was told to file a freedom of information request.
“Because I’m a councillor and we paid the bill, why can’t I just look at their expense reports?” he asked. “They wouldn’t let me.”
Heit said he received the information months later, “and I couldn’t believe it.”
Although Heit did not provide the expenses to The Standard, he said councillors billed the Region thousands of dollars in mileage and cellphone expenses.
Heit said he worked with former regional chair Gary Burroughs during the last term of council, working to reduce expenses by working with cellphone providers to eliminate roaming charges – incurred by cellphones that connect to networks in foreign countries.
“In the last few years of our last council, everything was in order. People weren’t – I don’t want to call it abuse – but making mistakes by going away and having their phones roam,” he said.
As the interim policy is refined, Heit said he has already identified several ways to improve it.
“They’re leaving grey areas,” he said.
For instance, the policy allows councillors to submit expenses associated with a companion if they attend a function while representing the Region.
“What if China invites the chair on a trade mission, to come to China to represent the Region? Does that mean his wife gets a free ticket?” he asked.
“I want it to be very clear. No expenses for your spouse. I’m the councillor, having my wife there or not at a function is immaterial.”
If a councillor wants to bring a companion to a function, Heit said the councillor should be paying the way for that companion out of his or her own pocket – not the taxpayers’.