NEWS

Nanaimo council mum on delayed staff expenses

Question from resident leads to pregnant pause during council meeting as members duck growing questions over staff disclosures
CAO Tracy Samra and CFO Victor Mema
A question about a delayed staff expense report was greeted by an uncomfortable silence and then deflection at Monday night’s city council meeting.

It came amid mounting public unease over why the city has failed to publish a scheduled report on senior staff expenses and blocked access to credit card statements for city manager Tracy Samra and chief financial officer Victor Mema.

Resident Amanda Orum stepped up at question period at the close of the meeting to ask if taxpayers can expect a promised “detailed, itemized expense report … for our CAO and Mr. Mema.”

There was a 10-second pause with no response from anyone. Someone could be heard tapping their pen.

Finally mayor Bill McKay recognized councillor Sheryl Armstrong.

“I don’t think that’s on our agenda is it,” countered the councillor, a retired RCMP officer who trounced opposition to win a by-election last July.

“We don’t have those expenses”

Ms. Orum explained that the staff expenses were related to an agenda item dealing with the city’s operating results for the first nine months of 2017.

The agenda also included reference to a report on council member expenses for the same period.

Said Ms. Orum: “We don’t have a report, so we don’t have those (staff) expenses.”

Councillors could be seen turning to one another in consultation.

Amanda Orum
Resident Amanda Orum posed questions

Mr. McKay then informed her that the items on the agenda had been referred up from a finance and audit committee meeting on Dec. 7.

“We’re here to receive the report, so the time to ask the question would have been at finance and audit, or when the finance and audit minutes were published,” said the mayor.

“So we can go to the next finance and audit committee and ask,” quizzed Ms. Orum, who was asking on behalf of a resident who was sick at home and couldn’t make the meeting.

“That’s correct,” said the mayor.

It wasn’t correct, and it was also evident that Ms. Orum’s questions had touched on a sensitive topic councillors are uncomfortable discussing publicly.

Ms. Armstrong told News Nanaimo on Tuesday that she wants an orderly question period and Ms. Orum’s question did not relate to an agenda item as required by council procedure.

“I think staff expenses need to be published and when that happens would welcome questions,” she said.

Sheryl Armstrong
Sheryl Armstrong thinks expenses should be published

News Nanaimo reported two weeks ago that the latest quarterly report on management expenses should have been published last November or early December. No explanation has been provided for why the accounts have not been released.

The delayed expense report comes on the heels of the city’s refusal to release credit card statements for Ms. Samra and Mr. Mema while simultaneously releasing them for three other managers.

CFO being sued

The city’s CFO is being sued in small claims court by his former employer, the District of Sechelt, for allegedly using their credit card for $9,700 in “obviously personal unapproved charges.” The allegations have not been proven in court.

During his two and a half years in Sechelt, Mr. Mema ran up expenses totalling more than $67,000.

In the 18 months to the end of June 2017 — the most recent available figures — Nanaimo’s top two managers incurred expenses of $50,425. That’s almost four times as much as their predecessors spent in their final two years at the city.

Last November, News Nanaimo published a review of 85 pages of expense records obtained through a freedom of information request showing how Ms. Samra and Mr. Mema had spent about $16,000 in the first six months of 2017.

Samra: allegations unfounded

Responding to pressure over management expenses, Ms. Samra announced an internal policy overhaul in a media statement (PDF) on Dec. 8.

“Allegations that city staff have overspent or charged taxpayers for non-eligible expenses are unfounded,” said Ms. Samra in the statement.

Bill Bestwick at Dec. 18, 2017 meeting
Bill Bestwick

At Monday’s council meeting concerns were also raised about the lack of public access to council’s financial deliberations since the city stopped recording finance and audit committee meetings four months ago.

But committee chair Bill Bestwick disclaimed responsibility for the lack of video recordings, saying: “I didn’t check to see when the last one was recorded or not. I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility, frankly.”

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  • Does anyone in Nanaimo read these articles from News Nanaimo? What do they think about this? I think council should be reviewed by the province and some of them should be fired, leaving the rest to catch up on city business. Council are so busy trying to nail one another they have forgotten why they were elected.

  • Charles, I think a lot of people read these articles from News Nanaimo. I also think the straight talking and engaging Amanda Orum brought clarity to a number of issues that left a room full of councilors stunned and the pulic overjoyed. I am also puzzled as to how the city evaluation process of the parking space availability on a new development seemed to overlook the issues that Ms. Orum raised.

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