It’s clear we live in a time when political careers come to a screeching halt when the public smells a whiff of entitlement. The case of former federal minister of health Bev Oda, who billed taxpayers for a $16 glass of orange juice, springs to mind as does the more proximal and recent example of former premier Alison Redford. The public did not share her view that as a working mother she needed a government jet and an unlimited expense account at her disposal. In fact, average working mothers, who earn considerably less each year than Redford billed taxpayers for her attendance at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, weren’t buying it and neither was anybody else. Albertans clearly will not put up with this kind of behaviour from elected officials any longer.
Until now, Edmonton city councillors have managed to avoid the kind of scrutiny that provincial and federal politicians have been subjected to, but that will come to an end later this month when councillors’ expenses will be posted online for the public to view.
In November, councillors passed a policy that would see such disclosure occur on a quarterly basis. Council expenses are currently posted annually with only broad categories such as “hosting and tickets” or “communications” outlining where the money is spent. Right now, councillors must disclose gifts worth more than $300 and the annual reports can only be viewed in the city clerk’s office during regular office hours. They are also not required to record or disclose those with whom they meet.
According to Lynne Turvey, supervisor of council services, any change to the policy to require more frequent reporting or to enable public online access would have to come from a direction of council. Similarly, any new policies—like a code of conduct and ethics—would have to be initiated by councillor request or administration’s recommendation. Given council has in the past rejected the idea of imposing a code of conduct and ethics for its members—although city employees are bound by such a document—this seems unlikely.
When council members were debating the policy change last fall, newly elected Ward 6 Councillor Scott McKeen told Global News he intended to post “some of his receipts” on his website. “We have to do as much as we can, I think, as councillors, to reduce the level of cynicism out there,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to do it to satisfy the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, but I’ll do it to satisfy the citizens of Edmonton.”
In the lead up to last fall’s municipal election, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation polled candidates to see if they would commit to posting their expenses, including receipts, online on a quarterly basis. Of the current six councillors who responded to the survey, five of them, including Mayor Don Iveson, made that commitment. Ward 3 Councillor Dave Loken was the only candidate who replied “no” to the question, while Councillors Bev Esslinger, Ed Gibbons, Michael Oshry, Ben Henderson, Michael Walters and Amarjeet Sohi didn’t respond to the survey at all.
Derek Fildebrandt of the CTF says he wasn’t surprised by Loken’s position as he’d been engaged in a tug-of-war with the city over the Ward 3 councillor’s detailed expense disclosure for some time. The city didn’t refuse to provide the information but demanded “unreasonable search fees for the information in order to ensure that they never actually have to release it.”
In each of the responses to the CTF’s requests for disclosure of Edmonton councillors’ expenses, the city has cited Section 93 of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act which allows for the imposition of fees when fulfilling requests for information. In Loken’s case, the CTF was told it would have to pay $731 to see a detailed breakdown of expenses from October 2010 to August 2012. The previous fall, the group had been told the FOIP fees to access Mayor Stephen Mandel’s expenses would come with a price tag of $4630.
Asked by us why, as of March 31, his expenses still had not been posted, McKeen responded that the “overwhelming nature” of his first few months on council caused a delay that he intended to rectify quickly.
“It is my intent to publish all my expenses,” McKeen says while expressing his apologies for his tardiness in doing so.
The scene in Calgary is a lot different. Last July, city council adopted the Ethical Conduct Policy for Members of Council. The policy requires councillors to post ward expense reports quarterly on the councillors’ pages on the city’s website. In addition to expense disclosure, the policy requires members of council to disclose all gifts with a value in excess of $150 with semi-annual reports posted online. The policy also covers a code of conduct for councillors to follow in their interactions with staff, the public, industry and other levels of government and requires that they keep a log of everyone they meet in their official capacities.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi has taken this one step further and reports all gifts he receives, which is why we know Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne gave him a Toronto Maple Leafs baseball cap last year, though it’s questionable if he has ever dared to wear it.
What about our own mayor? Iveson’s spokesperson John Brennan says the mayor is fully supportive of full disclosure of expenses. “He has no problem releasing this publicly,” Brennan says, but explains they have no plans to report anything over and above that which is released by the city clerk’s office.
Because they are not mentioned in the constitution, municipalities are considered “creatures of the province” and it is the province which has the final say in how they operate and govern themselves. As such, all elected representatives on all town and city councils in Alberta are governed by conflict of interest laws imposed through the Municipal Government Act. The province launched a review of the MGA last year. Edmontonians who want to see their city council improve transparency and accountability can use the review to make such demands.
“All aspects of the legislation are being considered and open to suggestions and any future decisions will be part of the review,” says Margarita Raggolini-Griffiths with the department of Municipal Affairs. She says there is an opportunity for Albertans to provide input at mgareview.alberta.ca.