Okanagan, Thompson regional districts are on their own to control staff spending | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Okanagan, Thompson regional districts are on their own to control staff spending

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March 04, 2021 - 7:30 AM

There is no provincial body with the power or mandate to make sure local government employees or elected officials don’t squander taxpayers' money.

The recent revelations showing Thompson-Nicola Regional District CAO Sukh Gill charged about $500,000 over five years to his corporate credit card – including alcohol, lavish meals and gifts – is indicative of a local government structure that has no consistent system of checks and balances.

That fact led to Kris Sims, the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, to demand the province retain and beef up the role of the Auditor General for Local Government.

READ MORE: It shouldn’t have been so hard to track wasteful spending at TNRD: Taxpayers Federation

The provincial government is forcing that office to close over the next few months as it completes audits currently underway. But it was never set up to do the kind of oversight that is lacking with local governments.

“In terms of our past work, ours was a performance audit review (function),” Mike Furey, Acting Auditor General for Local Government, told iNFOnews.ca. “They weren’t financial audits. We didn’t do specific investigations of the actions of an individual.”

For example, his office has audited how a capital project was done in Mackenzie.

His office would look at the policies in place for such a project, how it was managed and to make recommendations on how that process could be improved. It didn’t look at the money trail.

Another possible source of oversight might be the Union of B.C. Municipalities. But that’s not its job either.

“Our role is to advocate on behalf of local governments for changes that they’re seeking in provincial or federal policies and programs,” communications officer Paul Taylor said.

Members, at their annual convention, can direct the union to look into certain issues, such as a recent guide it was asked to develop on how board members are paid.

But it has no power to investigate.

“Local governments are autonomous, responsible and accountable to their communities and electorate for fiscal matters including expenses and accounting practices,” was the Ministry of Municipal Affairs’ response to questions about checks and balances over local government spending. “As such, municipalities set their own employee remuneration, oversight processes and must adhere to statutory requirements under the Financial Information Act.”

That “statutory requirement” is to file an annual Statement of Financial Information and make it public.

That statement shows how much elected officials are paid and what expenses they claimed. It must also list the incomes and expenses of all employees who earn more than $75,000 per year.

In Gill’s case, his expenses ranged from about $16,000 to $19,000 a year between 2015 and 2018. It jumped to $28,493 in 2019 but that was attributed to an approved trip to visit Kamloops’s sister city in Japan that year.

In all, his expenses on the financial report were $98,500 for those five years.

Yet, Kamloops This Week reporter Jessica Wallace obtained Gill’s credit card receipts for that time period and created a spreadsheet showing he charged about $500,000 to his corporate credit cards during those same years.

READ MORE: SPENDING AT THE TNRD: Board chair calls it ‘distressing’ and’ excessive’

Some of the difference in the two amounts is easily explained.

For example, Gill charged $4,315.50 in February 2018 for a conference and another $7,932.70 in April of that year for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Ottawa.

Those are likely hotel rooms and registrations for directors attending the conference and would be attached to each director’s expenses on the Statement of Financial Information, not to Gill’s.

That report only gives the total expenses for the year and are not itemized.

Nor were Gill's expenses.

A cursory look at the first few months of 2018 shows he spent, for example, $164,980 in January at Staples. That probably was accounted for in the regional district’s Office Supplies budget, not as a personal expense.

But, there doesn’t seem to be any budget line items for liquor store charges ($100 to B.C. Liquor Store in February and another $125 in April) or flowers ($82.67 to Canada Flowers, Niagara Falls, in April) or the United Way ($50 in February).

Board chair Ken Gillis will ask the board on March 11 to launch an independent audit of spending but it’s not clear if that will cover the expenses of all directors and all staff spending or just staff.

READ MORE: Board chair calls for audit of spending at Thompson-Nicola Regional District

Gillis did not know of any effort being made to determine what Gill spent legitimately versus what was allowed under regional district policy but may have been excessive.

Policies have been changed to limit the number of alcoholic beverages that can be consumed and the board chair or vice chair will now review their CAO’s spending.

That is done by some Okanagan regional districts.

But, is it an effective tool?

Gillis said he once questioned Gill’s spending on expensive hors d’oeuvres and was basically told to mind his own business.

Gillis was first elected to the board about 10 years ago.

“Ten months later, we had a UBCM (Union of B.C. Municipalities) convention,” Gillis told iNFOnews.ca. At those conventions, the regional district hosts its own dinner for directors, MLAs and others rather than attend the $100 a plate conference dinner.

“I thought: ‘Wow, this is pretty nice, this is how things are done,'" Gillis said. "You don’t immediately start questioning what the practices are or the culture of the organization. You become inured to that.”

Times have changed and the culture of having wine flowing freely at public expense in expensive restaurants is no longer considered appropriate, he said at a news briefing earlier this week.

“Societal norms change,” Gillis said at the news briefing. “A lot of these practices had been in place for many, many years. They predate Mr. Gill’s tenure as CAO.”

The board started to review those policies in 2019.

“The TNRD was changing,” Gillis said. “We were in the process of changing but, obviously, we had not been changing fast enough.”

The Thompson Nicola accountability system is, essentially, the same as in the three Okanagan regional districts.

Only staff review the credit card bills of other staff members and assign charges to different accounts, including the Statement of Financial Information. No one seems to be looking over their shoulders to make sure that’s being done appropriately. 

A final line of accountability may be found through B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act — which Kamloops This Week used to eventually get the information. But accessing information from a local government can be expensive, take time, has limits on what can be accessed and not every local government interprets the Act in the same way. 

Time will tell if the independent auditor will suggest a change in how the Thompson Nicola Regional District oversees spending.

If practices need to change there, the same may be true in other jurisdictions.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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