Discussion on policy work at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District got heated this week, including a split 5-4 vote and concern raised by one director about overall tone of the meeting and resistance to putting in place reasonable restrictions on politicians’ expenses.
The TNRD’s policy review committee met on Wednesday (May 18) to discuss a policy item that pertains to board expenses.
Staff are proposing directors claim $25 for breakfast, $30 for lunch and $45 for dinner through per diems submitted without receipts, to a maximum of $100 per day.
The per diems would apply to directors on TNRD business for meetings, conferences and more.
The flat rate applicable anywhere in the province is more than a previous proposal for rates of $80 and $100, which would be adjusted depending on where in B.C. an expense was taking place.
TNRD chief financial officer Doug Rae said he reviewed directors’ 2019 per diems since the initial proposal earlier this year and thought $100 would be a better threshold.
The per diems will replace a former $120 overnight per diem rate, which included $37 in daily incidentals.
City of Kamloops director Denis Walsh is new to the committee after replacing former committee chair and fellow city councillor Kathy Sinclair, who resigned from her role at the regional district to take a job at Thompson Rivers University.
Walsh called the new proposed per diem rates “excessive.” He suggested the rates could be cut in half, noting he went out for dinner and a drink recently and it cost him $26.
Walsh also suggested that, without receipts, directors could charge taxpayers $25 for breakfast while only spending $10 on a coffee and bagel, pocketing the other $15. If they don’t claim it, meanwhile, the director would instead be out $10, he noted.
“I don’t think this really covers it properly,” Walsh said.
Merritt Mayor Linda Brown (who was acclaimed the committee’s new vice-chair on Wednesday) said $45 for dinner includes tax, tip and drinks. She suggested the TNRD utilize a higher daily meal expense rate of $113.50, as set out by Canada Revenue Agency.
“I don’t go to fast food restaurants. I’ve got too many allergies,” Brown said. “I don’t use fast food and I can’t use toast for breakfast. So, I have to have a restaurant that serves me gluten-free meals and, when I look at that, when you include the tip and the taxes, the meal cost is not that significant.”
Area L (Grasslands) director Ken Gillis opposed new wording in the policy that eliminates the option for directors to go to a restaurant instead of eating conference meals. He told the committee food offered during conferences is not a meal anybody wants to eat.
Area A (Wells Gray Country) director Carol Schaffer agreed.
“I’d just like to say that I attended SILGA [Southern Interior Local Government Association conference] and the breakfasts were god-awful,” she said, referring to the late April conference held at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort in Salmon Arm.
“They were cold. They weren’t edible, as far as I’m concerned.”
Gillis furthermore spoke on behalf of those with food allergies. Gillis and Brown are married.
Deanna Campbell, the TNRD’s general manager of corporate and legislative services, explained that some conferences charge meals automatically as part of registration.
Campbell said Gillis’ desire for directors to be able to go to a restaurant instead of eating conference meals goes against what the regional district has been allowing for staff.
“The concern for both staff and board was that we’re paying this additional cost of the conference, which includes meals, and then we’re also reimbursing you for additional meals,” Campbell said.
TNRD Area P (Rivers and the Peaks) director Mel Rothenburger and City of Kamloops director Dale Bass expressed opposition to Gillis’ proposal.
“The problem is, the TNRD — i.e. the taxpayers — end up paying an extra amount if somebody doesn’t happen to like the bagels that are provided at, say, UBCM conventions,” Rothenburger said, noting every penny expensed by directors is charged to taxpayers and the purpose of the policy review is to implement reasonable restrictions upon themselves.
“I get a sense here, chair, that we’re resisting this stuff instead of promoting it and trying to put reasonable restrictions on ourselves. So, I have a concern about the kind of tone that’s coming out of this meeting.”
Added Bass: “I’m kind of embarrassed of this conversation.”
On multiple occasions throughout the discussion, staff were also asked to “massage” language in the policy.
Ashcroft Mayor and committee chair Barbara Roden said many taxpayers would be happy with the food politicians receive at conferences and suggested food allergies and inedible food could be accommodated via per diems, but only as an exception.
Roden has replaced outgoing Sinclair as chair of the policy committee.
Gillis moved to amend the policy so directors could have the option to choose a meal provided or expense a meal.
The motion passed in a 5-4 vote, with directors Brown, Gillis, Schaffer, Barriere Mayor Ward Stamer and Area B (Thompson Headwaters) director Stephen Quinn in favour.
Bass, Roden, Rothenburger and Walsh were opposed.
The director expense policy also includes 61 cents per kilometre for vehicular use on TNRD business and communication expenses of $2,000 per year for electoral area directors and $500 per year for municipal directors, which can be used for cellphones, internet and more.
Gillis and Stamer pointed to sky-high gas prices and questioned whether the vehicular rate was sufficient.
Chief financial officer Rae, however, said directors are being paid more than $5 per litre to drive. The remainder of the rate is for insurance and maintenance costs. Rae also noted the Capital Regional District on Vancouver Island provides 50 cents per kilometre.
The committee then voted 7-1 to send the proposed policy to a full board meeting for discussion and vote at a future date.
Walsh was opposed, Bass, Gillis, Quinn, Roden, Rothenburger, Schaffer and Stamer voted in favour and Brown left the meeting prior to the decision.
Roden said the board will have an opportunity to review what was decided by the committee.