Saturday, September 20, 2014

How expensive are those Council "expenses"?

The notion of "expense accounts" for politicians has become a tricky thing.  At the federal level, the expense scandals surrounding Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin have heightened citizen awareness of the potential for abuse in this area, and I believe that's a good thing

Frankly, anyone in public office who isn't sensitive to this issue either hasn't been listening, or is tone-deaf to the public opinion that's out there.  If it's about nothing else, it has to be about transparency.

The reason I bring this up now is because I'm about to incur the single biggest hit of the year to my Councillor expense account.   I'm off to the annual Union of BC Municipalities Convention.

I'm not gonna lie to you.  I enjoy going to these things.  They provide a great opportunity to learn, to re-connect with like-minded folks in municipal leadership, (and let's be honest, I don't have a lot of "like-minded folks" at our local Council table), and to listen and exchange ideas on what has and hasn't worked in various settings and communities around the Province in the realm of municipal governance.

There is no doubt that there is a "social element" to these events.  I'm quite sure, for example, that there will be a moment of silence and perhaps even a few tears shed over the unexpected loss of two colleagues in the past four months.  The mayor of Zeballos, Ted Lewis, had become a good friend and ally of mine in many of the floor resolution debates at both UBCM and the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities over the past 6 years, until we lost him to cancer back in August.  Likewise, Port Hardy's mayor, Bev Parnham, was also taken from us very unexpectedly earlier this year.

But I'm not going to try to justify a trip to a convention because it's a good "social" experience for me personally, or even because there is value in the "learning experiences" and the exchange of ideas that happens at these events.  Those are, in a large sense, of personal benefit to me as an individual.

As a taxpayer, you're entitled to ask whether you're getting value for money in terms of actual "on-the-ground" results in North Cowichan when I spend your money to go to these things.  And I honestly believe the value is there.  In spades.

If you've been following my political trajectory for the past 6 years, you'll know that I have been working since 2009 on an issue that is potentially extremely expensive for North Cowichan - indeed for many communities right across the Province.  It involves the dilemma of the costs of major crime investigations, where resources have to be brought in from outside our immediate jurisdiction.

This issue first came to my attention in 2009, when Campbell River was hit with a multi-million dollar bill from the Province because a couple of bad guys from Surrey ended up in a gunfight in the Salmon Capital.  One of them died.  The Surrey Gang Unit was brought in to investigate and at the end of the day, the citizens of Campbell River were stuck with a multi-million dollar bill for feeding, housing, and overtime for dozens of “out of jurisdiction” officers, who were in their community for several weeks.   The case prompted me to write and present an emergency resolution to the 2009 UBCM Convention on the issue, asking the Province to stop this kind of egregious downloading to municipalities.  The resolution passed unanimously but - initially at least - the Province largely ignored us.

However, I've been kind of like a dog with a bone on this file.  At pretty much every UBCM Convention since 2009, I've been meeting with senior officials in the Provincial Justice and Attorney-General's Ministries to keep pushing the case.  The quote that always gets their attention is when I say to them: 

"Imagine if the City of Port Coquitlam had received the bill for the Willy Picton investigation."  
And we are making headway.  Small steps.  One of the things I found out at a convention a few years ago was that the problem with this "billing model" is actually embedded in the Provincial Police Act.  A senior RCMP official told me - in what I took to be an "off-the-record" comment over hors d'oeuvres at one of the receptions - that this problem couldn't be fixed until the Police Act was re-written.  And that he didn't think there was the political will in Victoria to do this.  But lo and behold, late last year, the Province quietly embarked on a rewrite of that Act.  There was no big fanfare and no Press Conference, but the statement announcing the review (which I didn't see until I stumbled upon it on the Web a few months after the fact), made a specific reference to the need to revisit the issue of "out of jurisdiction" investigations as part of the rewrite.

And the lobbying work will continue this week.  Mayor Lefebure and I have formal meetings scheduled with Justice Minister/Attorney-General Suzanne Anton as well as a representative from the Premier's Office (perhaps with Ms. Clark herself if she's there that day), to continue pushing the case.  It's taken 5 years, but this isue has now made its way to the highest levels of political decision-making. 

Why should you care about something as esoteric as a police funding formula?  We've just gone through two major crime investigations in the Cowichan Valley.  The Karrie-Anne Stone and Tyeshia Jones cases.  In both of those instances, the crimes were committed outside of the boundaries of North Cowichan.  But if those circumstances had been slightly different - and if the bodies had been found just a mile or two north of their actual location - I can pretty much guarantee you that your tax bill would look a lot different today because of the expenses this would create for us under the present policy.  The investigation that put William Elliott behind bars for those murders was extremely complex and also extremely expensive.

So the reason I'm fighting so hard on this file is that at the end of the day, a policy change on this could save North Cowichan millions of dollars in the event that we had a "major crime" within our boundaries.  And a lot of the advocacy work on these kinds of files is done at conventions like UBCM.  I'm quite comfortable in saying that all of my expenses combined since I was first elected will constitute good value for tax dollars within the context of winning just on this file alone

But there's more to this year's UBCM than just that single issue.

Between Tuesday and Thursday of this coming week, we have meetings scheduled with eleven different Cabinet ministers in addition to the Premier (or her representative.)

A brief list:

    Shirley Bond (Jobs and Tourism) - we'll be pushing for a re-definition of agri-tourism, and changes in the assessment and taxation of our local wineries to improve their viability.

    Rich Coleman (Housing) - refreshing the message for the need for more Provincial efforts to facilitate affordable housing.

    Peter Fassbender/Amrik Virk (Education/Advanced Education)  - reminding both Ministers of previous commitments with respect to the construction of a new Cow High campus and an adjacent Trades Centre in conjunction with VIU.

    Terry Lake (Health) - reminding him of the urgent need for a replacement of Cowichan District Hospital, and asking for a firm commitment to allocate money to this project before the year 2020.  We'll also be reminding him of the need for a final resolution to the issue of the foreshore lease in front of the Chemainus Health Care Centre.  That area is in our long-term Chemainus vision as a sea-walk, but it can't proceed without approval from the Health Ministry.  We'll also be meeting with Steve Thomson (Natural Resources), looking for his support on the foreshore issue.  (His Ministry actually handles the permits.)

    Norm Letnick (Agriculture) - there's a need to clarify Provincial rules surrounding new federally-licensed marijuana grow operations.  Are they considered OK for ALR land?   That's not clear right now, and we will be pushing to move them away from those lands and exclusively into "Light Industrial" zoning.  We'll also be making the case for stronger "right to farm" legislation in light of a recent court decision up in Coombs, where a farmer was prosecuted for killing a dog that was attacking his sheep.

    John Rustad/Mary Polak (Aboriginal Relations/Environment) - the Chemainus wells issue is still unresolved.  We have applied for year-round pumping out of those wells, but it's unclear where the Province is with respect to this request, particularly in light of the complications posed by the Halalt claims to the aquifer in the area.  We need some certainty on this file.

    Teresa Wat (International Trade & Asia/Pacific Strategy) - pushing for increased promotion of the burgeoning Cowichan Valley wine industry in the Asia-Pacific market.

    Suzanne Anton (Justice/Attorney-General) - in addition to the RCMP "out of jurisdiction investigations" I referenced above, we'll also be pushing the Province to increase its staffing contribution to our local blended detachment.  A Human Resource study done a few years ago shows that currently, North Cowichan taxpayers are bearing a disproportionate share of the overall staffing load.  There is hard data (caseload studies, prisoner counts, etc), showing the need to increase the Provincial component of the detachment to handle law enforcement in the City of Duncan and some areas of the CVRD which are within the RCMP catchment area (where policing is paid for by the Provincial government.)

Not all of Council is going to the Convention this year, but cramming nine meetings into three days (with some of the meetings running concurrently) means that those of us who are there will be splitting up on several occasions to cover all the bases.  I hope you're starting to see that this Conference isn't all about "wining and dining" and social get-togethers. 

So are you getting your money's worth?  Let me remind you that the entire cost of the Chemainus River Bridge - I believe that was in the range of $5-million dollars - was covered by senior levels of government.  That funding package alone would be the equivalent of the expenses inherent in sending every single Council member to every single UBCM convention for more than 100 years.  The new Evans ballfield near Berkey's Corner was also built primarily with Provincial money, which was the subject of some pretty intense lobbying and discussion at past conventions.  It's all a matter of perspective, and the "expenses" for conferences of this nature pale in comparison to the benefits that accrued to North Cowichan taxpayers in those two projects alone.

One more thing.  These "expense account" things can be somewhat politically tricky.

There have been several occasions in the past where I provided transportation in my vehicle for other members of Council; kind of a car-pool arrangement.  Reducing the carbon footprint and all that.  (I've driven several different Council members in different years.)  Practically, what this meant was that my expenses appeared to be higher than theirs, because since it was my vehicle that was being used, I was the one being reimbursed for mileage and the bulk of the ferry costs.

But what really frosted my britches is something that happened a few months after one of these "car pool" excursions.  A Council colleague who shall remain unnamed - someone who had traveled with me to a Convention in the preceding year - used the occasion of the release of our annual "Statement of Financial Information" (which includes the annual Council expense details) to trumpet the fact he/she was "watching the pennies" on expenses.  Apparently, the evidence for this was that my expenses were higher than his/hers. 

All of which is to say that, as with many things in politics, these things are not always as they appear. 

No comments:

Post a Comment