I submitted a letter to the editor of the Observer that appeared in the April 27 edition and was headlined Roadblock. In the article, I expressed my astonishment at the ridiculous $262 charge levied against the city’s finance portfolio holder, Councilor Sushil Thapar for requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) pertinent to his portfolio.
He requested information relevant to council and the city manager’s travel expense claims. In his clarifying article published June 3 in the Observer, I was pleased to read the absurd charge for doing the job we elected him to do, regarding his portfolio and our money, was expunged. I was under the impression that common sense had prevailed by the initiator(s) of this questionable type of censorship. I could not have been more mistaken.
It appeared the Mayor and the city manager had exhausted every possibility to prevent Coun. Thapar from getting information on council and the city manager’s travel expense claim(s). Wrong again. Before cancellation of the fee, the city manager with the approval of the mayor, submitted a request to the City solicitors for a legal interpretation of the regulation that refers to fee exclusions for obtaining information under the FOI Act. City Bylaw 1297 Appendix 1, item 75(5) refers. On the radio June 22, the mayor gave her reasoning for submitting this matter for legal counsel advice due to the complicity of interpretation of the FOI Act. See if you can interpret the 54-word regulation the mayor and the city manager were unable to do. It reads as follows:
The power to excuse an applicant from paying all or part of a fee if, in the Head’s opinion, the applicant cannot afford the payment or for any other reason it is fair to excuse payment where the record relates to a matter of public interest, including the environment or public health or safety.
Because the last eight words are not applicable, in this case, the 54 word are reduced to 46 that require interpretation. If the spending of our tax dollars is not in the public interest, what is? If Coun. Thapar, who we elected to represent us is disallowed access to his portfolio by the mayor and the city manager, they should be required to validate their actions with a realistic public explanation. Failing this, should they not be personally responsible for the unnecessary and outrageous waste of our money as outlined below?
The submission by the mayor and the city manager in attempting to get a legal ruling validating the absurd charge against Coun. Thapar, has cost us as taxpayers a total of $2,892.96 including HST, to cancel what was an invalid charge in the first place. Look for a possible additional charge of $91.84 when the city solicitor realizes he has made a mathematical error in his breakdown of his FOI legal fees invoice that he provided to the city manager by e-mail dated June 17. On April 20, he spent 3.20 hours on the interpretation, April 21, 6.40 more hours and a decision reached April 26, after three more hours of ponder.
A responsible city manager would not doubt have stipulated for interpretation, the exclusion regulation only. If so, the city solicitor seems also to have had a problem interpreting the 54 words comprising the exclusion provision. Why else would it take 13 hours of review? The obvious verdict was Coun. Thapar should not pay the $262 fee.
Instead of issuing a written apology to Coun. Thapar, a “Motion of Censure” was invoked against him for discussing issues relative to his portfolio with city staff. Notwithstanding, in the legal interpretation that cost us so much, include a sentence that states, “Under policy a councilor can ask a staff member for information.” That information was included in the e-mail to Coun. Thapar by the city manager John Stecyk, May 3.
On April 26 city council unanimously voted THAT: all council and city employee travel expense claim forms be filed electronically on the City web page. it was agreed Council’s request to the Corporate Travel Policy regarding electronic filing on the City website be reviewed in three months time and a report be prepared related to staff time for this request.
On May 16 Director of Finance Kari Bolton outlined a “procedure she stated could be implemented with a few minor changes to current practice.” A motion with the same wording as the motion on April 26 was voted and carried, (4-2) with councilors Oakes and Roodenburg opposed. At the same meeting Mayor Sjostrom, seconded Councilor Couldwell and resolved: THAT: effective June 1, 2011, copies of all expense claims for council and senior management be included in the Council Agendas (Things to do list, according to Coun. Thapar) on a six month trial basis, upon which the procedure will be reviewed. “Note reviewed.” This motion effectively prevents Coun. Thapar from disclosing the content of the travel expense claims the mayor and the city manager have taken such costly and desperate measure to prevent until after the next election due on Nov. 19.
In a column in the Observer by Mayor Sjostrom June 3, she made the following comment:
• We’re committed to and take pride in being an open, honest and transparent local government. If you ever had questions about the work council is doing, please contact us.
If the mayor is sincere in the statement she is reported to have made, she and the city manager should back off and allow Coun. Thapar to do the job we elected him to do.
I am a concerned taxpayer and probably many other taxpayers in Quesnel are also.