Travel and expenses fuelled more than an hour of discussion at the Columbia Shuswap Regional District Electoral Area Directors meeting Aug. 7.
The corporate policy, adopted in 1981 and never amended, was presented by CSRD staff at the July 17 regional district board meeting, but deferred at the request of the rural area directors, who said the policy affects them more than the municipal directors.
Finance manager Jodi Kooistra sought amendments on the policy that affects both staff and directors because there are currently no guidelines that set limits on meal expenditures, room upgrades or partner programs. As well, there is a lack of consistency in how expense claims are processed.
Kooistra made clear that meal expenses for business outside of CSRD limits are on a strictly per diem basis. Within CSRD limits, detailed receipts are required to prevent fraudulent use of the per diem.
“We’re not trying to be food and beverage Nazis but we want to get the GST back and without getting original receipts showing what was purchased and when, we can’t,” she said. “The per diem gives a high degree of accountability.”
But Area D director René Talbot and Area C director Paul Demenok were not in favour of a per diem anywhere.
“When it comes to meals, I always try to get itemized receipts,” said Talbot. “On occasion I’ve lost them and if I can’t find them, I eat the bill.”
“I think the travel and expense policy needs to be tight,” added Demenok. “I don’t like per diem because it could be interpreted that directors are being paid. I don’t like that tone and I think we should have receipts for everything.”
Demenok later agreed to a per diem but suggested it be $80 per day within CSRD boundaries, and $100 out of town to accommodate often higher costs.
Following a spate of questions and comments regarding directors’ responsibility in choosing the cheapest mode of transportation, hotels and meals, Kooistra reiterated the policy declares directors and staff are expected to “utilize the most cost-effective method of travel considering time, convenience and safety.”
Chief administrative officer Charles Hamilton confirmed CSRD has access to government rates.
“What is difficult, is people like to make their own travel arrangements, or decide where they want to stay,” he said. “People go out and book a room at a higher rate, and this got to the point we were seeing such discrepancies with conference rates compared with what some of the directors were incurring.”
In terms of air fare, Hamilton advised directors he would have no problem approving a fully refundable economy fare.
“We don’t think you should have to dig into your own pockets, but, at the same time, we don’t think you should fill your pockets at CSRD expense.”
This did not sit particularly well with area F director Larry Morgan.
“I would think the previous policy didn’t need fixing, but do think it needed better definition,” he said. “I thought there was some latitude in claims and how they were paid and I think we’re starting to nit pick…Regardless of what has been said in the press, I don’t think any one of us has been pulling a fast one.”
Morgan had been under the impression that directors were expected to have significant others accompany them to conferences and take part in partner programs at taxpayers’ expense. He was visibly angry to hear it would be up to staff and directors to pay such expenses themselves.
“My wife is on the phone constantly with people; she’s taking calls – some not so positive, directing people or taking messages and, to me, it’s a slap in the face to people like my wife…” he said. “I want to see a policy to accommodate the efforts of spouses.”
Area A Rural Revelstoke Loni Parker agreed with Morgan, calling her husband an adjunct to her role as director.
“It is disheartening when your gonna cut off half of you in the community,” she said. “I think it should be decided by directors.”
Switching gears, Talbot asked that as electoral area directors are most affected, the travel and expense policy should pertain only to the EAD.
But Kooistra noted there is no language in staff’s unionized contracts to cover travel and expenses, and Area E director and chair of the meeting Rhona Martin pointed out that expenses of municipal directors who are appointed to certain committees are paid by CSRD.
“This policy affects everybody and I hope this fulsome discussion will happen at the whole board meeting,” noted Martin, who was absent from the July 17 board meeting. “I think most of us have been playing within the rules but this just gives clarity.”
The directors agreed unanimously to forward the policy to the board for further discussion.