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Sechelt taxpayers spent a bundle on Victor Mema’s education, then he quit for bigger Nanaimo

Nanaimo's finance chief refers questions about his education expense obligations to his lawyer. Former mayor says he “can’t remember” the details
Nanaimo Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Victor Mema billed taxpayers of a small BC municipality almost $46,000 in education costs before quitting to take his current job.

While working as CFO for the District of Sechelt (pop. 9,300) between April 2013 and August 2015, Mr. Mema rang up expenses totalling $67,185.54, according to records obtained by News Nanaimo.

Victor Mema as Sechelt's CFO in 2014
Victor Mema as Sechelt’s CFO in 2014

Included in that amount is about $30,000 related to Mr. Mema obtaining his Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation through the Alberta branch of the international accounting organization.

Sechelt taxpayers also paid $15,850 in tuition fees and textbooks for Mr. Mema to obtain an online Master of Public Administration degree from National University based in San Diego, California.

But taxpayers of the small Sunshine Coast community had little time to benefit from their investment in Mr. Mema’s education. He quit unexpectedly in August 2015 with one week’s notice to replace Nanaimo’s retiring finance director Brian Clemens.

Sechelt is a small community of 9,300 with a budget a 10th the size of Nanaimo's
Sechelt is a picturesque community of 9,300 with a budget a 10th the size of Nanaimo’s

Mema refers questions to his lawyer

Mr. Mema declined to answer questions emailed to him this week asking if he had any obligation to repay Sechelt taxpayers for his educational expenses.

After referring the questions to his lawyer, he said: “we will not be discussing employment contracts with third parties.”

Flamboyant businessman John Henderson, who was Sechelt’s mayor in 2013 when Mr. Mema was hired, said he “can’t remember” what the arrangement was and referred questions to the new administration.

Current Sechelt Mayor Bruce Milne said he could not comment on the contents of Mr. Mema’s employment contract due to BC’s privacy laws.

News Nanaimo has filed a Freedom of Information request for the employment contract and any related agreements.

Jordan Bateman, BC director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said education policies vary from community to community.

“Nanaimo should take this as a lesson to include a five-year repayment clause in future negotiations,” said Mr. Bateman. “If an employee leaves within five years of the municipality paying for a degree, they should be reimbursed.”

Sechelt's former mayor John Henderson was known for his flamboyance
Sechelt’s former mayor John Henderson, in his Tesla Roadster, said he can’t remember the agreement on Mr. Mema’s education costs.

A tumultuous time

Mr. Mema left the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Fort McMurray, Alta., to join Sechelt on April 8, 2013 at a tumultuous time for the seaside community.

Described as “a very stressful place” by one former staff member, the district had seen high turnover of senior management, including four different Chief Administrative Officers in a 15-month period.

Sechelt, which had just 59 employees in late 2014, was also embarking on its biggest-ever capital project — a controversial $20-million wastewater treatment plant.

That project became the subject of a damning audit report by BC’s Auditor General for Local Government, which said Sechelt had been exposed to “unnecessary risks” and its “approach to capital asset management was in need of improvement.”

Sechelt's controversial wastewater plant
Sechelt’s controversial wastewater plant

Flights, hotels, car hires and meals

Expense records show that one of Mr. Mema’s first claims at Sechelt was a $1,937.50 reimbursement for “CMA program fees” made on June 4, 2013. The next month he claimed an additional $5,050 for CMA tuition billed to a Visa card, and then three more $5,000 installments in November 2013 and in January and March 2014.

Victor Mema in Sechelt in 2014
Victor Mema in Sechelt in 2014

The records also show several flights, hotel stays, car hires and meal expenses for trips to Alberta to attend executive CMA program sessions. He finally obtained his CMA designation in November 2014, which also qualified him to use the Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation, which became the single accounting designation in Alberta in July 2015.

It’s difficult to discern from the Sechelt expense records which travel expenses relate to Mr. Mema’s education and which relate directly to his work for Sechelt.

However, the records show that he spent more than $13,500 of taxpayer funds on travel, hotels and meals over the course of 2013 and 2014.

In total for the 21 months he was in Sechelt in 2013 and 2014, Mr. Mema’s expenses came to $63.500.42.

Some of Mr. Mema's 2014 expenses
Some of Mr. Mema’s 2014 expenses

Big spending stops with new council

However, when the November 2014 municipal elections swept aside the flamboyant Mayor Henderson and all but two councillors, the heavy spending came to an abrupt halt.

For the seven months he was in Sechelt in 2015, Mr. Mema’s expenses totalled just $3,685.12. That included a $1,953.14 expense to reflect the foreign exchange portion of his National University MPA program, $940 for his CMA membership dues and $285 for his members in the BC Local Government Management association.

In those seven months, Mr. Mema incurred travel expenses only once. He billed taxpayers $507 for a Government Finance Officers Association conference. However, there were no flight, hotel or meal expenses paid.

On Monday, August 24, 2015, Mr. Mema handed in his resignation to Sechelt. He was leaving the small community that had given him the freshly minted letters “CMA” and “MPA” behind his name and taking the top finance job in Nanaimo.

It was a huge step up. Sechelt had operating revenues of just $13 million, whereas Nanaimo was 10 times the size with operating revenues of $168 million.

Mr. Mema at a recent Nanaimo council meeting
Mr. Mema at a recent Nanaimo council meeting

In June this year, Nanaimo council and Chief Administrative Officer Tracy Samra promoted Mr. Mema to Chief Financial Officer of the city.

In the first six months of this year, his expenses in Nanaimo amounted to $7,148, which is more than his predecessor claimed in all of his last three years at the city.

Said Mr. Bateman of the Taxpayers Federation: “His expenses seem very high, especially compared to others within the organization. For someone who has the best view of the financial state of Nanaimo, it’s disconcerting to see him blowing through so much money on expenses. What kind of message does that send to his colleagues?”

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  • It might be interesting to check if Nanaimo’s own Suzanne Samborski (sp?) had any of her education expenses covered by the city before heading to bigger and better down in Langford??

  • This is a phenomenal quote from the Chief Financial Officer of a public entity…”After referring the questions to his lawyer, he said: “we will not be discussing employment contracts with third parties.”” It would appear that this public servant doesn’t understand who’s money it actually is? Chilling comment from a CFO and totally inappropriate from any senior public servant.

  • He is just using everything he can to better himself. Won’t be in Nanaimo long if there is a better deal. This is an insult to working men and women who will never have the opportunity to access these kind of funds.

  • It’s unfortunate what the media chooses to highlight.
    Education expenses can be a part of any hiring contract. Obviously Sechelt was grateful to hire such a capable CFO at the time. The finance department ran at its best under Victor’s watch.
    Maybe we should ask who’s degrees Sechelt financed who didn’t have a contract or isn’t receiving the benefit to the position they hold? Or, what was the untenable situation that caused Mr. Mema to consider leaving in the first place?
    Or, how much has been, or will be (yet for the courts to determine) paid out by the current administration for the culling that took place after the last election?
    Yes, the public purse warrants integrity and ethics; no doubt held in the highest regard by Mr. Mema. To suggest otherwise is slanderous.

  • CAO Samra also hired away Brad McRae after one year in Lantzville as CAO (total 3 years experience in that role) to become Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the City of Nanaimo [with responsibility for Public Works, Engineering, Fire/Emergency Management and Facilities]. Lantzville, with a population of 3600, had operating revenues of 3.6 M$ in 2015! Is there a pattern developing here and, if so, to what impact on the residents of Nanaimo?!?

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