Sunday, November 28, 2010

Changing the Rules as We Go

I've written in this blog before (July 3, 2008) about how members of council don't always seem to understand the processes that we're supposed to follow, or even the actual responsibilities that each member of council has. To compound the problem, some members of council appear to be quite satisfied with their ignorance, with making up rules to suit the whims of others, and with ignoring basic democratic principles. And some members of council seem to be quite all right with giving away their rights and responsibilities.

A couple of years ago I suggested that it might be beneficial if all of council were to have someone from the outside come in and give a presentation on how council is supposed to work, and on the parliamentary procedures that we're supposed to follow. Not surprisingly, considering it was my suggestion, other council members at the time felt that it was too late in our term to try to improve (the phrase "better late than never" being something that they obviously don't believe); others declined because they didn't want to bring in the individual that I was suggesting (which I found odd, because I hadn't suggested anyone). And the new council has shown no indication of being interested in learning about rules and procedures if they're going to slow down the process, and possibly prevent some individuals getting their way.

I was reminded of this recently when some inconsistencies occurred when I tried to recover my expenses for attending one of the committees that I've been placed on. This current council has given away their opportunity to have input to membership on city committees, instead ceding that authority totally to the mayor. In his wisdom, he has placed me on three committees that meet out of town - the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee, which meets in locations ranging between here and the Alberta border, the Saskatoon Airport Authority, which meets in Saskatoon, and the North Saskatchewan River Basin Committee, which meets in North Battleford. I'm not sure how particularly useful it is for the city to have representatives on these committees, but we've been invited, and I do my best to get to these meetings and provide the city's perspective on matters being discussed. For these types of committee meetings, the practice in my ten years on council has been that a councillor who has to travel out of town to attend a committee meeting is reimbursed for vehicle mileage. This was not considered as part of the individual's travel budget, which is used to attend conferences.

Until now. Maybe. I've been told a couple of different stories. It started when I attended a meeting of the North Saskatchewan River Basin Committee in August, and I submitted my expense claim to the city manager's office. The former practice (and no doubt the practice followed still by other members of council) is to submit expenses directly to the mayor's office. I haven't done that for a couple of years, after an incident which occurred while I was in the process of submitting an expense claim to one of the administrative assistants, when the mayor came out of his office and told the assistant not to bother helping me, since I "didn't matter". I don't know about you, but when I get treated with gratuitous rudeness, I won't go out of my way again to deal with that sort of behaviour. So I spoke with the city manager, and my procedure since then has been to submit expense forms to his office, which had been working without incident until now.

When I didn't get reimbursed for that August meeting for several weeks, I called the city manager's office. He told me that I wouldn't be getting reimbursed, as I had now exceeded my travel allowance. I explained to him that the travel allowance was for conferences, that I had been to only two (SUMA and FCM) and didn't believe that those two conferences had put me over budget, and that this travel had been for a committee meeting, a committee that I hadn't asked to be put on. He didn't have any good answers, so I raised it at my first council meeting after returning from holidays.

Well, it seemed that the reason had now changed; I hadn't been reimbursed because apparently there was an error in the form that I submitted. And I received a cheque, although not for mileage, which is the usual practice, but for an amount considered to be equivalent to rental of a vehicle.

But the confusion over my travel budget persists, at least with some. At this past week's council meeting council approved a new travel policy. At least the matter of committee meeting travel has been clarified, and travel expenses for committee meetings will not be taken out of an individual council member's travel budget, which is $3,600 annually. At this meeting, the mayor said that I was the only council member who had exceeded their travel budget, which I find hard to believe, since the conferences that I went to were attended by most other members of council, so why wouldn't those who went to both SUMA (five of eight councillors) and FCM (all members of council) also be cited for being over their travel budget? Administration has not provided me with any documentation on my alleged over-budget status, either.

Also in the new policy are a couple of interesting items - the mayor and the city manager are now allowed to use the city credit card to entertain (I'm not sure where we have budgeted for that sort of expenditure), and the mayor now has the authority to approve any in-province travel, even if you're within your travel budget.

So council has decided to let the mayor decide if you can go to a conference within the province, even if you have travel budget funds remaining - previous mayors seemed to recognize that a councillor could track their own use of their budget, and left the discretion with the individual councillor. And I don't recall there ever being an issue with councillors abusing this discretion. The mayor has already taken over what used to be a council responsibility - approving out-of-province travel, although when he tried to prevent me from attending a housing conference in Toronto a couple of years ago, I brought it to council, which resulted in him changing his mind before a vote could be taken.

With this new council, there seems to be the misconception that the mayor is the boss of council, and councillors should just do as they're told. Well, a read of The Cities Act would probably be a worthwhile effort for several members of council - nowhere is it indicated that all votes must be unanimous, or that one member of council has more authority than another when it comes to decision-making. And when council members give away their authority, either because it's the easy thing to do, or because they want to avoid conflict or being treated badly, or for whatever reason they can come up with, they're not doing their job.

"I have never been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others." - Thomas Jefferson

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