Meet Nanaimo’s $500 per hour councillor

Poor attendance at Regional District leads to high pay for little work and poor representation
Imagine a job where you can show up only half of the time and still get paid your full salary plus expenses — to the tune of $521 per hour!

That’s precisely what Nanaimo city councillor Bill Yoachim, who declined invitations to comment on this article, got for himself last year through his plum post on the board of the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN).

Bill Yoachim
Bill Yoachim cost taxpayers $521 per hour of meetings

According to RDN records, Councillor Yoachim missed half of his designated RDN board and committee meetings in 2015, his first full year in the job. Of the 36 meetings he was supposed to attend, he made only 18 — a 50% absenteeism rate.

But that didn’t stop the freshman councillor being paid $14,276.40 in pay and $373.20 in expenses. In fact, despite attending the fewest meetings among his city council peers, Councillor Yoachim racked up the highest expenses.

Based on a total of just over 28 hours spent in the 18 meetings he attended, Councillor Yoachim’s directorship at the RDN cost taxpayers  $813.87 per meeting or $521.03 per hour.

Absenteeism problem among Nanaimo councillors

Councillor Yoachim’s case is an extreme example of a broader problem of poor attendance at RDN meetings by Nanaimo’s current crop of regional representatives.

The rate of no-shows to RDN board and committee of the whole (CoW) meetings in 2015, the first full year of the new council, was more than double the rate under the previous council in 2013.

Such chronic absenteeism raises concerns about how well Nanaimo’s interests are being represented at the district level, which provides services to city residents such as regional transit, solid and liquid waste management, watershed protection and regional parks.

Seven of Nanaimo’s nine council members hold seats on the 17 member RDN, which is chiefly funded by property taxes. The posts are assigned to city councillors based on the number of votes they received in the election.

The RDN directorships entitled each city representative to receive inflation-adjusted base pay of $13,300 in 2015 — 33% of which is tax free. The base amount covers up to four meetings per month, after which representatives are paid extra for attending or chairing meetings. They can also bill for expenses like mileage and meals related to meetings.

The two city councillors with the lowest vote count — Gord Fuller and Diane Brennan — are designated as alternate RDN directors. Alternates are able to fill in when their colleagues are absent and are only paid for the meetings they actually attend. In 2015, Councillor Brennan was paid $800 and Councillor Fuller $560 for attending meetings in place of their absent colleagues.

The pay and expense rates are set out in an RDN bylaw (PDF) that says directors are expected to “participate fully in the business of the Board” and that “members are expected to attend all regularly scheduled meetings unless there are extenuating circumstances.”

RDN board with Nanaimo Council directors circled. Top (L-R): Bill McKay, Jim Kipp, Bill Bestwick. Bottom (L-R) Ian Thorpe, Wendy Pratt, Bill Yoachim, Jerry Hong.

McKay had third-best attendance record

However, RDN records show that only three Nanaimo council members attended 80% or more of their designated meetings last year.

Councillors Ian Thorpe and Jerry Hong attended all but one of their 32 designated meetings, achieving attendance rates of 97% each. Both men missed the January 27, 2015 RDN board meeting, which was the first meeting following Councillor Fuller’s heart attack.

Ironically, Nanaimo mayor Bill McKay, whose “poor attendance” at city council meetings was cited as one of the reasons (PDF) for a non-confidence letter signed by 7 of his council colleagues earlier this year, had the third-highest attendance rate at 81%. He attended 29 of 36 board and committee meetings and also was the RDN’s representative to the Island Corridor Foundation.

Four of the seven Nanaimo representatives attended fewer than 80% of their designated meetings last year. They include Jim Kipp (73%), Wendy Pratt (73%), Bill Bestwick (78%) and, of course, Bill Yoachim (50%).

Such low attendance led to many situations where Nanaimo’s voice on the RDN was diluted due to a lack of a full slate of directors being present. At 13 RDN board and CoW meetings in 2015, Nanaimo was not fully represented because there were more Nanaimo representatives absent than were substituted by alternates.

At the CoW meeting on April 14, 2015, for instance, only three of seven Nanaimo representatives were present, while neither of the two alternates was in attendance. Similarly, on March 24 and November 24, three of Nanaimo’s councillors were absent, but only one alternate director — Councillor Brennan — was present.

And even when both alternate directors attend, there may be too many absent councillors to make up a full complement. That happened on July 14 and November 10 when both alternate directors attended meetings but three other directors were absent.

Councillors explain absences

Of the four councillors with low attendance rates, only Councillor Pratt offered an explanation that reasonably would qualify as “extenuating circumstances” as stipulated in the RDN bylaw. She told News Nanaimo that she took leave for two months near the end of last year to care for a dying friend.

Councillor Kipp is also a special case. Of all the Nanaimo councillors, he is by far the most involved in the RDN, being designated a member of five separate committees and commissions.

In fact, he attended more RDN-related meetings than any other Nanaimo councillor. But since he attended only 32 of the 44 scheduled meetings, his attendance rate is only 73%.

Asked about his RDN attendance, Councillor Kipp said in an email: “I have a family, other projects and time commitments, which I suggest everyone should including yourself.

“Further I have to deal with constant negative personal agendas and from time to time take breaks from the dogma of those whom bring little to the table.”

Councillor Bestwick is a member of one RDN committee and attended 25 out of 32 scheduled meetings for an attendance rate of 78%.

In a detailed response to emailed questions, he explained each of his absences as being due to work conflicts, his annual 2-week summer vacation with his wife, and one instance of being ill.

“As you may be aware, I am employed in another industry, that from time to time requires my attendance mid week,” he said.

Councillor Bestwick, who is currently on vacation, also pointed out that unlike city council, the RDN does not permit directors to attend meetings remotely via phone or the Internet.

“While on vacation I will be participating in City Council meetings by phone and online. Which I have done for 11 years,” he said, adding that “the RDN does not have a Bylaw to accommodate such circumstances, and therefore it’s not available.”