Ward funds policy not unethical, city lawyer says
While a few councillors were willing to give up control of the Health Community Initiative Funds, if only to end criticism from the public, others were staunchly opposed to the idea.
In a report on the funds delivered Aug. 14 to the finance committee, Auditor General Brian Bigger called for control of the funds to be given back to staff, and for a review on whether the money should be spent on gifts and donations, as is currently the case.
Although councillors are not supposed to use the funds for election expenses or campaigning, a chart provided in Bigger’s report showed that spending on ward funds doubled in both 2009 and 2010 (2010 was an election year) compared to the two previous years.
Councillors spent less than $250,000 in 2007 and 2008, but spent more than double that in the next two years, which could be interpreted that elected officials held onto funds to allow them to spend more in their wards closer to election time.
In his report, Bigger recommends spending of the HCI funds be curtailed in election years. But it was his call for councillors to give up control of the funds that met the most resistance.
Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac said no one in her ward has been critical of the funds, derisively called slush funds by critics. Each councillor can spend $50,000 a year in their ward with few restrictions, and can carry unspent amounts over to the next year.
“I don’t take this lightly,” Dutrisac said. “As a ward councillor, I get a lot of requests that staff may not get. To delegate all of this to staff, I would not be in favour.”
She said it’s important that wards like hers with smaller population have access to funding for minor projects that otherwise might be overlooked.
“These funds are important because we’re all treated equally.”
She also didn’t like the idea of curtailing HCI spending in election years, because projects often take a year or two to come to fruition – a fact she said explains why HCI spending spikes before elections. Limiting HCI spending a year before the election is a bad idea, she said.
At their meeting in July, councillors debated a new policy for the funds that would have given them more transparency and added some rules on how they could be spent.
Under the new rules, allowable expenses for ward funds would have been broken down into four categories: donations to community groups; community event expenses; gifts and promotion for community events and groups; and, capital expenditures related to municipal facilities, such as neighbourhood parks.
But before they passed the policy, Ward 3 Coun. Claude Berthiaume suggested referring the matter to Bigger, because of the controversy the funds have created.
Some of Bigger’s report clashed with a legal opinion from city solicitor Jamie Canapini. Under the Municipal Act, Bigger writes, councillors are expected to make spending and other decisions in full view of the public, with few exceptions.
“With these funds, many spending decisions are made by individual councillors in a forum that is not available to the public,” the report reads. “Details of capital projects, contributions, grants and donations are not available to the public until the money is already spent. This may place staff and other members of council in reactive or defensive positions, making it more difficult to challenge specific expenditures if guidelines are not as clearly defined as is possible.”
Municipal councillors are also not supposed to make decisions on behalf of the corporation “unless specifically authorized by statute or a bylaw of the municipality. Though it may have been council’s intention, we did not find evidence of this spending authority having been ‘expressly’ authorized by bylaw of council.”
But Canapini told councillors he already reviewed the legal aspects of the funds and found no issues.
“As you know, legal services has already provided an opinion already, so we were surprised to see this recommendation,” Canapini said. “We provided this opinion prior to the report, and we provided Mr. Bigger with a copy of that.
“After extensive research, we didn’t find anything illegal about the activity,” he said. “The policy … does not suggest anything illegal, unethical or untoward.”
After rejecting giving up control of the funds, councillors asked staff to come up with a series of options for a new policy that would incorporate Bigger’s other recommendations. Those options will include formalizing a process in which councillors consult with staff when making HCI spending decisions.
Other recommendations in the report include:
-adding procedures to evaluate whether the goals of the healthy community initiative are being achieved by councillors when they spend the money;
-prohibiting spending the money on donations and gifts;
-ensuring that the money is available to all constituents;
-detailing exactly who is responsible for the spending decisions, and to keep a list of all requests, both those that are approved and denied.