In the first six months of this year, Chief Administrative Officer Tracy Samra charged taxpayers $10,763.16 for expenses ranging from $4.64 for coffee to $1,691.17 for a stay at the luxury Fairmont Winnipeg Hotel.
Her half-year expenses — which don’t include a council-approved allowance of up to $5,000 for legal expenses — are on track to be three to four times as much as previous city manager Ted Swabey’s.
Chief Financial Officer Victor Mema, who joined the city from Sechelt a year ago, billed $7,148 to taxpayers for his expenses in the first half of the year. His expenses for just six months are $2,105 more than his predecessor claimed in all of his last three years at the city.
Mr. Mema is no stranger to high expenses, however. In two years — 2013 and 2014, the most recently available figures — he billed Sechelt taxpayers a whopping $63,860.42 for personal business expenses, according to public records.
Report a response to Mayor’s call for transparency
The top bureaucrats’ bulging expenses are revealed in a new semi-annual report. The report follows Mayor Bill McKay’s call for directors and above to disclose their expenses similar to how council is now doing in its quarterly expense reports.
However, according to a city news release the staff expenses report will be released twice per year, in August and November.
All staff who have earned $75,000 or more by those dates will have their expense details disclosed. The mayor had asked that only directors and above be required to report detailed expenses.
While the report is likely to be hailed as evidence of a new level of transparency at the city, staff expense claims have long been considered “routine” information available on request.
Recently, however, city staff balked at providing the expense details and required that News Nanaimo file a freedom of information request. That request, which asked for copies of receipts, has yet to be fulfilled.
Samra’s expenses leave out key details
According to the new expenses report, both Ms. Samra and Mr. Mema had higher expenses than either the mayor or any councillors over the same period.
Ms. Samra spent $7,938.87 on a variety of conferences, $655.51 on professional memberships and $384.40 on meals and coffee.
The report shows that Ms. Samra, who was commuting between Victoria and Nanaimo, charged taxpayers for three stays in town at the Coast Bastion when council meetings ran late. One of those stays was in May, after she was appointed full time.
The city manager also charged two trips to Vancouver in February costing taxpayers $626.64. Oddly, the expense report gives no reasons for these trips.
Also missing is any information about Ms. Samra’s legal expenses. At an in-camera meeting late last year, councillors voted to give themselves and Ms. Samra up to $5,000 each to get “independent legal advice” related to allegations concerning her hiring and her role in the censure of councillors Diane Brennan and Ian Thorpe.
While council’s recent expense report showed that five councillors spent $14,500 getting legal advice on the matter, the staff report makes no mention of Ms. Samra having a legal budget. Ms. Samra did not respond to questions about this or other matters by publication time.
Ms. Samra’s $10,763.16 total for the six months compares to the $3,751.08 her predecessor Ted Swabey billed in all of 2015. Mr. Swabey had expenses of $5,479.59 in 2014 and $5,505.82 in 2013.
By comparison, Victoria’s CAO had expenses of $4,082.63 for all of 2015, while the Regional District of Nanaimo’s former CAO billed taxpayers $10,054.74 for expenses in all of 2015.
Mema’s expenses much higher than predecessor’s
But it’s the finance chief’s expenses that show the largest leap over his predecessor’s spending. Mr. Mema’s six-month expenses bill of $7,148 makes predecessor Brian Clemens’ $1,818.01 in 2015, $1,917.16 in 2014 and $1,307.62 look like small potatoes.
Mr. Mema’s expenses included $5,069.83 on conferences and travel. That includes registration — but not travel, accommodation and meals — for the Association of Financial Professionals annual conference next month in Orlando, Florida.
He also cost taxpayers $2,046.87 in membership dues. Interestingly, Mr. Mema paid dues to the Chartered Professional Accountants of Alberta rather than to the BC organization, even though he has worked in BC since 2012.
Neither Ms. Samra nor Mr. Mema responded to questions emailed to them by the time of publication.
Other staff included in the expenses report include:
- Fire Chief Craig Richardson spent $2,858, most of which was on attending the BC Fire Chief’s annual expo in Richmond in June. The report says he had no expenses last year.
- Community Development Director Dale Lindsay spent $1,399.20, mostly for a local government conference held in Nanaimo and his annual membership of the Planning Institute of BC. For the 12 months last year, his expenses amounted to $3,583.58, with the vast majority going to travel and conferences.
- Human Resources Director John Van Horne spent $631.02 on hospitality, conferences and travel. He spent $1,092.33 last year.
- Parks and Recreation Director Richard Harding had the lowest expenses of the group. In fact, he has a credit of $150 after he reimbursed the city for expense amounts he got last year. In 2015, his expenses came to $938.59.
You can read the entire staff expenses report below: