A former city councillor is speaking out about travel by municipal politicians to conferences, such as the Union of BC Municipalities, in the wake of the TNRD spending controversy.
During a press conference last week, TNRD board chair Ken Gillis defended hotel stays charged to former CAO Sukh Gill’s taxpayer-funded credit card as part of regional district business. Many of the hotel charges appeared to be high-end in nature and connected to conferences on behalf of directors and staff.
However, former Kamloops councillor Donovan Cavers told KTW he thought hotels at which local politicians stayed for conferences during his time on council were pricey and, when he attended conferences on city business, he would couch surf, find cheaper accommodations and take the bus to keep costs low.
“I often looked at what the hotel costs were and usually it was like $200 to $300 a night and I would just think to myself, ‘If I was actually going on a trip or I was going somewhere, I would never stay at a hotel that was $300 a night, so why would I do that when I was going to UBCM?’” Cavers said.
The spending controversy stemmed from a year-long KTW investigation into expenditures at the TNRD.
Cavers said conference organizers buy blocks of hotel rooms and promote people to stay in the hotels near or where the events are hosted. However, he argued it is not necessary. He pointed to the high-end nature of conferences as a gateway to other spending.
“When I was on council, I noticed that it seemed like the more people attended the conferences, the more comfortable they became with just kind of tangential spending,” he said. “And, usually, when people first got on council, it would seem pretty weird, but I guess it’s sort of like an ingrained culture. If you talk to other communities, it would probably be a similar sort of situation, or other regional districts. … Going to an event like that, it’s just sort of the normal thing and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s OK or that it’s a good idea or that it should be like that, but that’s just the way it has become.”
Cavers said he was not surprised to see spending outlined in KTW’s reporting — which detailed more than a half-million dollars charged over five years to former TNRD CAO Gill’s taxpayer-funded credit card on big parties, high-end restaurants, regular coffee shop visits, luxury hotels and expensive gifts — though he said it was more extensive than he realized. Cavers said he thought the spending was limited to conferences, but it appears to have been ongoing. Cavers labelled car washes and alcoholic beverages charged to taxpayers as “outrageous.”
“Getting drunk definitely doesn’t make you a better city councillor,” he said. “There’s no reason that alcohol should ever be covered.”
Last summer, the regional district approved a new two-drink (wine and beer) limit policy. Area P (Rivers and the Peaks) director Mel Rothenburger had proposed a cash bar, but a motion to that effect failed.
“I think it’s just not the right practice to be supporting,” Rothenburger said at the time. “I think it would be much better for directors to pay for their own drinks if you choose to drink at a TNRD event.”
Those in favour of Rothenburger’s motion included Kamloops councillors Dale Bass, Mike O’Reilly and Kathy Sinclair. Those opposed included Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian and councillors Dieter Dudy and Bill Sarai (attending as an alternate for Coun. Arjun Singh) along with chair Ken Gillis and vice-chair Bill Kershaw.
Bass has since told this newspaper she was surprised when she joined the board to learn the regional district hosted open bar events. Gillis has since said he expects the alcohol policy to be revisited.
TNRD Area E (Bonaparte Plateau) director Sally Watson told KTW the regional district board knew about and was complicit in the spending. She said the board never made attempts to cut costs. She said justifications were made about the high-end hotels as a means of limiting walking for older directors.
Watson blamed a culture at the regional district, to which Cavers also weighed in. Cavers was never a TNRD director during his seven years on Kamloops council. He said he pushed for the city to determine directors based on the order they finished in the civic election, rather than each year councillors voting for one another to be on the regional district board.
“It was kind of like Survivor week. It was ridiculous,” Cavers said. “Everyone would vote for the same people and it would just cause this caustic situation between all the councillors once every year.”
Cavers said he pushed for a return to the top council vote-getters to be appointed TNRD directors, noting Mayor Christian agreed and it was changed in time for the 2018 municipal election. During last week’s press conference, Gillis referred to significant changes on the board in the last municipal election.