By Scott Costen
Council expenses published by Region of Queens Municipality lack detail and context, according to several elected officials.
Posted Jan. 25, the most recent expense report covers the first three quarters of the 2017/18 fiscal year (April 1 to Dec. 31, 2017).
The Citizen interviewed three councillors about their expenses and how they are tracked and reported by the municipality. All three said the process should be revised to provide a more complete picture.
“I don’t think they capture expenses accurately,” said District 7 councillor Gil Johnson. “I would be in favour of as much detail as possible.”
Johnson, who lives in South Brookfield and represents North Queens, has the longest commute to council meetings. He’s also driven himself and other elected officials on council-related business outside of Queens County.
Not surprisingly, he’s claimed $1,725.89 this year, the most of any council member.
“All of that is mileage,” Johnson said. “It’s going to council, committee of the whole, the heritage committee and so on. There are also a lot of small trips in my district, which I don’t bother claiming.”
But when the municipality publishes expense totals without any detail or context, false assumptions could be made by members of the public, he said.
For example, while eligible to claim meals because he lives more than 10 km away from council chambers, Johnson said he’s never done so. He wants taxpayers to know this. And he wants to know if his council colleagues are claiming them.
“I’d like to see who is claiming for meals,” he said.
The administrative policy governing council expenses was adopted in September 2005 and applies mostly to mileage, meals and some other out-of-pocket expenses. These expenses are published in aggregate form by the region, with no notation of how far councillors live from 249 White Point Rd. and no breakdown into mileage, meals and other categories.
Fees and accommodations for out-of-town conferences and meetings are paid directly by the region and do not appear in council expense reports. Other expenditures, such as the purchase of new tablets for all council members, are also not contained in published expense figures.
District 2 councillor Heather Kelly has not claimed any expenses since taking office. That’s due in part to the concentrated size of her Liverpool district and its proximity to council chambers.
“There’s nothing to claim,” said Kelly. “When I’ve gone out of town on council business, I’ve always carpooled with someone else who claimed the gas. And conferences and things like that are paid elsewhere.”
Kelly said the region provided an orientation session for council after the October 2016 election. This helped her understand the expense policy for elected officials, she said. “They gave you a binder with all the policies in it and everything you need.”
Still, she’d like to see some improvements in terms of expense reporting. “It would be nice to put the figures in perspective,” she said. “Otherwise we run the risk of adding to any confusion or negativity about council.”
District 4 councillor Susan MacLeod, who also serves as the municipality’s deputy mayor, claimed $899.74 in the first nine months of 2017/18.
MacLeod said the vast majority of her claims are for mileage, including numerous trips to Bridgewater for council-related business. “It’s generally just out-of-town mileage,” she said. “I don’t charge for meals or anything like that.”
MacLeod would also like to have more detailed information in council expense reports. “It would be an advantage not just to residents, but to councillors ourselves, to see more information provided,” she said. “For example, it would make more sense to people if they knew who was travelling outside of Queens to attend meetings.”
Region of Queens interim CAO Jennifer Keating-Hubley declined an interview request from the Citizen. In a brief email statement, she expressed surprise that councillors were not satisfied with current expense reporting procedures.
“I was unaware that councillors were interested in making changes to the process with regards to the reporting of their expenses,” she said. “Councillors who would like to explore such changes would need to inform the CAO of such.”