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Kamloops News

JONESIE: TNRD spending isn't the real issue

March 05, 2021 - 12:02 PM

 


OPINION


Nice to see shock and a swift reaction in Kamloops when residents learned how their hard-earned money was being spent by staff at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District.

If you tuned it out because those aren’t your tax dollars, well heads up: There’s plenty to learn and we’re not even talking about the right subject yet.

I’m not going to repeat all the details. For that, visit our friends at Kamloops This Week, where reporter Jessica Wallace spent a year fighting for and digging through credit card receipts and financial information to find a culture of frivolous spending. Go read the details about extravagant hotels, alcohol, jewelry, gifts, gift cards and even non-profit donations — all from taxpayers.

I’m going to start with what happened next: The regional district announced it’s going to do an audit of spending and that seems to have doused this fire. I’m sure directors and staff are breathing a sigh of relief now. Whew, what a couple of weeks, eh guys? Glad that’s over.

This is local government, of course, so it will be months before the board can define the scope of its audit, more time to close bids, choose the auditor and months before the audit and report is finished and released.

If that audit doesn’t show where all that money got stashed away into budgets and financial reports, it will be a complete waste. The money is already spent; knowing how it was accounted for is how we find the next one.

I’m sure there’s more. I’m not sure people realize just how much unaccountable power city managers or CAOs of local governments really have or the free ride they get. They lead organizations with hundreds of people, huge budgets and the legal authority to mess with other people’s lives and livelihoods.

They are at the top of the pyramid, free to fire staff at their whim, hire or promote their friends to positions with bloated salaries and perks.

And they are largely unaccountable. They are the one and only employee of councils or boards, meaning the politicians are often actively discouraged from even communicating with other staff. Their direction goes to the top manager, who bends the rest of the organization to that will.

There’s really no such thing as whistle-blower protection in local government, making it next to impossible for staff to call out or question those at the top and those staffers can be fired for raising those issues. If councillors ask why, they have to accept the answer from the CAO, of course.

That means their only accountability comes from directors or councillors, which is comical. Most haven’t a clue how municipalities work. Politicians set policy; scrutiny isn’t even on the menu until something like this erupts. By all accounts, TNRD politicians were just fine with these expenses until Wallace started asking questions. Dig the cluelessness from those directors about going along with spending, per Kamloops This Week.

"I joined them whenever I had to. I drank, too. I joined them whenever I really felt that I needed to get along with these guys.” 

Another director: "I thought, ‘Well, that’s the way they do things here.’ I didn’t know enough about the culture of the board at the time to question it and nobody else ever seemed to either.”

Another: “I was quite stunned to go to my first TNRD event and discover it was an open bar. That’s not what we do at city council. However, TNRD — I was told, this is how they do it at TNRD. Being new, who’s going to question it, right?”

Leave you brimming with confidence? Many have no experience at all with local government. They view every issue through the filter created by the top bureaucrat. And most councillors are useless at budget time. Penny-wise and pound-foolish: They’ll spend hours arguing about $5,000 community grants, but pass millions of dollars in projects and staffing without even a question.

Luckily, most CAOs are professionals with integrity. Occasionally, some upstart council will run a CAO out, but that’s of little consequence because — well, that brings us back to the Thompson-Nicola Regional District.

Thing is, this spending scandal is the same penny-wise, pound-foolishness. It’s almost a smokescreen for the real issue. The audit will show a few thousand dollars of subjective overspending, and in a year we’ll repeat the news cycle about coffee meetings, over-imbibing at dinners and unquestioned purchases before it finally dies with a whimper.

What it won’t do is address the real issue — why CAO Sukh Gill is no longer there. In February 2020 the board first called it a resignation, then later a retirement. A retirement! With a severance! Of $350,000 to $500,000- plus! Where else but in government would you get severance upon retirement?

Reading between the lines of the board’s public comments, they negotiated his removal over an issue they legally can’t disclose. And that’s how it happens. Had Gill not retired, he’d have done what all the others do — jump back into the pool of available CAOs and get hired by another municipality where HR has no idea why they were canned. And so on.

Of course the expenses are worth reviewing, but it’s peanuts. It’s thousands. The real issues are in the millions getting passed around in budget line items and the illusion of accountability for the high-priced bureaucrats calling the shots.

— Marshall Jones is the Managing Editor of iNFOnews.ca


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