Two city councilors have come under fire this week for their mileage charges, but the bylaw and policies that dictate the type of travel an elected official can be compensated for aren’t very robust
Clearly, Greater Sudbury’s policy governing how staff and councilors claim mileage needs to be updated.
District 2 Com. Michael Vagnini and Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan faced questions from colleagues at the March 29 finance and administration committee meeting about the mileage expenses they claimed in 2021.
How, their colleagues wondered, during a year when meetings and events were held virtually, could Vagnini claim over $13,000 in mileage expenses while Kirwan claimed over $3,500?
Travel costs for most other advisors have been in the hundreds of dollars over the past two years as COVID-19 has kept people close to home. Only Ward County 3. Gerry Montpellier’s $3,600 mileage claim was that high, but as the Rural Councilor continued to travel to Tom Davies Square for meetings, his expenses were not in question.
During the meeting, Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh said she was “uncomfortable” with some of the claimed expenses and so were we. We echo his call for a review of travel and expense policy.
Kirwan and Vagnini cited similar reasons for creating such a tab. Kirwan told his colleagues that he had no specific reason for the 1,700 kilometer journey around Ward 5; he just wanted to see “how the playgrounds and the roads and everything were going”. Vagnini also said he often drove around Ward 2 to see what was going on. Additionally, he also told Town Hall reporter Tyler Clarke that he would rather visit voters in person if they had a problem, than speak to them on the phone, which explains some of the mileage he has. accumulated.
Councilors need to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods, so we wouldn’t blame an elected official for leading fact-finding or information-gathering excursions to better serve voters.
We would also like to make it clear that we see no reason to doubt the veracity of the advisors’ mileage claims.
That said, Vagnini’s spending is so outside the norm that it raises our collective eyebrows. We did the math. He said he spends four days out of seven on the road in his neighborhood. To cover the 26,076 kilometers he claims to have traveled, he was driving 501 kilometers per week.
Of course, Vagnini has a big neighborhood and, as we said, a councilor should know what is happening in his corner of the country, but what information could be gleaned from the councilor who spends so much time moving around the neighborhood 2? Is this really the best way to use his time and our tax dollars?
The mileage claims of the two advisers are not the real problem, however. No, here’s the real kicker: the city’s travel and expense policy is written so vaguely that it includes a loophole big enough for every councilman to drive their vehicles with room to spare.
Bylaw 2016-16F tells us that elected officials will be reimbursed for mileage to attend council and council meetings, and “for any other city-related travel within the city,” a phrase so vaguely phrased that it is almost totally meaningless.
In other words, advisers and staff can be reimbursed for anything an official might claim is tied to the city – it could be attending a board meeting or driving to the grocery store along a municipal road and calling to review the road infrastructure.
A mileage claim form must be filed that requires the claimant to disclose the reason for their trip, but the way the regulations are worded, “city-related travel” can mean almost anything; all that seems important is what the official said They did.
The taxpayer has no way of knowing whether these expenses are legitimate, nor do the staff who approve the expenses.
Closing the loophole by inserting new provisions into the policy and regulations is an appropriate way to address the problem. A limit should be placed on the number of kilometers that can be claimed in a year, as there is currently no limit. Additionally, the bylaw should define what “in-city city-related travel” actually means and what specifically can be claimed for mileage.
Although we would like to take people at face value, the laws governing the spending of taxpayers’ money cannot be based on the honor system. The rules are written for the minority that breaks them, after all, not the majority that doesn’t break them.
It is high time to fill this gap. Too bad we have to wait until 2023 to do so.
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