Halifax councillors won't be caught up in MLA-like expense scandal | The Coast Halifax

Halifax councillors won't be caught up in MLA-like expense scandal

The provincial MLA expense scandal has many asking the question: what of HRM city councillors?

I spent a great deal of time over the last few days reviewing the provincial auditor-general's report, interviewing various people with insights into it, and undertaking a parallel investigation of city councillors' situation. I'll be writing an editorial on the provincial side of things for this Thursday's paper, but for now, let's look at the city.

Besides an unbridled sense of entitlement and some ridiculously bad judgement on the part of legislators, the biggest problem at the province is that there are no clear guidelines regulating MLA expenditures. I'm happy to report that this is not the case at all on the city level: councillors are subject to the same spending guidelines as any other city employee, as set forth in the Municipal Governance Act. Ironically, the Act was passed and amended by the very legislature that refused to set policies for itself.

Now of course people will disagree with what constitutes appropriate expenditures by councillors, but those guidelines are set in writing, and are part of the city budget. In essence, they constitute a mileage budget for in-municipality driving (steve Streatch, representing the far-flung districts of the Eastern Shore, will necessarily have more mileage reimbursements than a peninsula councillor), a travel budget for travel outside the municipality (Councillor Gloria McCluskey tried unsuccessfully to zero this out last budget session) and the same per diem charge staff has.

Any other expense will be treated exactly as any staff expenditure. For example, as with senior staff, councillors are given the use of computers, but those computers remain city property after the councillor leaves office. They also have cell phones. That's about it.

There is a $65,000/year pot of money each councillor has some discretionary control over, called the Capital District Fund. But in comparison to provincial office expenditure non-policy, the city has strict policies for expenditures from the funds, found here. Reading through this document, I couldn't help but notice that it exactly meets the kind of criteria that provincial auditor-general Lapointe faults the legislature for not having. Moreover, each expenditure has to be vetted and approved by city staff, before being paid, a process that is not in place at the province.

Of course, having a policy in place and meeting the policy are two different things, so I went looking for some details for how the District Capital Funds were actually spent. City policy requires that these details be posted on the city web site, and they are, sort of. Like much that's posted on the HRM web site, the fund details are not in any one recognizable, easy-to-find place, and the web site search function is lacking in many regards. But after a bit of hunting around, I found the 2008 reports, here (see Appendix Five). I spent about a half hour looking through the report, and nothing jumped out as being clearly in violation of policy, but different councillors had slightly different ways of reporting the expenditure, and some of the line items are unclear.

The city could tighten up the public reporting side of councillor expenses, by placing them more prominently and collectively on the web site, and having a bit more in the way of explanation for each expenditure, possibly including a link back to a staff report.

But that's a relatively minor quibble. As I said above, people will disagree about what constitutes a reasonable expense policy, and amounts, but I'm satisfied that city councillors are meeting a well-defined policy.

One other issue comes up with regard to the city, however. When auditor-general Larry Munroe was hired in October, I asked him for an interview, to see what he was all about, what his priorities would be, and to ask about some specifics. He said at the time that he'd like to find his sea legs and get some experience under his belt before granting an interview, and asked that we put off such an interview for "a few months." That seemed reasonable, so I agreed.

In the wake of the provincial auditor's report, I thought it was time to take Munroe up on his "few months" offer, and so both called and emailed to ask for an interview. He responded to neither. I therefore pestered the city's communication person about it, and finally, today, four days after asking, Munroe's staff person emailed to set up an interview---in March.

I guess he's a busy fellow, but Munroe is seen as the protector of taxpayer money, and so should more readily make himself available for interviews.

I'll follow up on that after I speak to him next month.