Edmonton·CBC Investigates

Edmonton's former city manager spent 200+ days travelling on taxpayers' time and money

Former Edmonton city manager Simon Farbrother made 52 trips on taxpayer dollars in his last three and a half years in the job, all under a system that allowed him to approve his own expenses with little to no oversight.

Mayor and new city manager vow to change policy and make expenses public

Former Edmonton city manager Simon Farbrother spent hundreds of days traveling in his final years on the job. 1:06

Former Edmonton city manager Simon Farbrother made 52 trips on taxpayer dollars in his last three and a half years in the job, all under a system that allowed him to approve his own expenses with little to no oversight.

A CBC Investigation shows Farbrother spent 212 days during that period working outside the city, at a total cost of $139,643.34. Some of those expenses were reimbursed by the province and other organizations.

In all, he spent 24 per cent of his final year on the job out of the city.- CBC Edmonton investigation

Last year alone, Farbrother went to Russia, the United States and Australia before he was fired in September 2015 and given an $800,000 severance package. In all, he spent 24 per cent of his final year on the job out of the city — often out of the country — even as major projects began to fall off the rails.

CBC obtained more than 2,000 pages of travel documents from the city manager's office through freedom of information. 

Click on the coloured bars below for more details about where Farbrother went

In response to CBC's inquiries, the city has changed its policy; the new city manager will now be expected to publicly post all expenses online.

Metro LRT delays

The first time the now infamously delayed Metro LRT line was set back, Farbrother was in Phoenix, Ariz. The third time it was delayed, he was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attending a conference.

In October 2014, the city stopped setting new opening dates for the beleaguered line, settling instead for "early 2015." As Mayor Don Iveson stood at a podium to break the news to the public, Farbrother was in Australia as part of a 41-day worldwide junket for the city's Commonwealth Games bid.

In the last month of his employment, Farbrother was grilled by council over the auditor's findings of mismanagement of the Metro LRT line, which was 16 months behind schedule at the time.

Farbrother responded by accepting "full accountability" for the delay. The next day, he boarded a plane for Sydney, Australia, for a week on city business.

Iveson announced Farbrother's termination within days of his return.

Manager travelled for sports, international conferences

Farbrother was hired in 2010, with a salary of $400,000 a year, including benefits.

Coun. Mike Nickel said he started to notice Farbrother's frequent absences shortly after he was elected in 2013.

"When I just got on board I was trying to find out how the organization had been restructured, and those sorts of things," Nickel said.

Nickel said he had trouble reaching the city manager, who was often away at conferences or representing the city in bids to bring major sports events to Edmonton.

"Here I was struggling to find the city manager on deck."

The city manager's office budgeted $25,000 for travel in 2015. He had already spent that much by the time he was fired in September.

His itinerary last year also included a $700 trip to Vancouver for the FIFA Women's World Cup Final.

According to the city's documents, Farbrother travelled mainly to attract major sporting events to Edmonton, such as the FIFA women's world cup and the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final

Farbrother continued to travel on Commonwealth Games business after Edmonton dropped its bid.- CBC Edmonton investigation

In 2014, as part of the city's bid to bring the Commonwealth Games to the city, Farbrother led a delegation of city officials to Glasgow, China, New Zealand, Australia and Barbados. 

The costs of those trips were largely reimbursed by the province after the city dropped its Commonwealth Games bid on Feb 10, 2015. By the time the city dropped out, it had already spent about $2 million in preparation for making the bid.

Though the bid was dropped, Farbrother continued to travel on Commonwealth Games business, including the 12-day trip to Sydney that ended just days before council voted to fire him.

'Reputational advantages'

The second most common reason for Farbrother to travel involved the International City Managers' Association (ICMA), which he served as president from 2013 to 2014.

Council approved of his taking the role at ICMA, and helped chip in for related travel across the globe, including appearances in Tokyo, Denmark and several cities in the United States.

It's not clear how much of the travel expenses Farbrother racked up on ICMA businesses were reimbursed by the organization.

"There were reputational advantages," Iveson said of Farbrother's travels for ICMA.

"Delegations came here, as well as presentations that he was able to make all around the world about our leading practices from waste management to the environment to biodiversity to workforce inclusion. You name it."

Aside from Farbrother's expense claims, the travel money was generally used to send staff members to meetings with other governments, to Alberta Urban Municipalities Association meetings, and to professional development courses.

Farbrother never broke city policies, possibly because no policy existed for the city manager. Councillors were always notified when he was away, and a deputy was always installed.

The city's business expense policy states that "no employee may approve his/her own authority to travel or business expense claims." But Farbrother approved his own travel.

No approval necessary

As the highest ranking employee in the corporation, no one had authority to sign off on his frequent travels.

Nickel said his concerns over Farbrother's trips grew over the years, as things started to go wrong, including the Metro LRT Line, two major bridge projects, and a number of troubling audit reports

As the highest ranking employee in the corporation, no one had authority to sign off on his frequent travels.- CBC Edmonton investigation

"I basically had to push and ask the question, 'Who should be held responsible?' " he said.

Nickel, like the rest of city council, isn't legally allowed to say what specifically was behind the decision to fire Farbrother. But he said some of the responsibility lies with councillors and the mayor.

City council sets the city manager's budget and reviews performance, but currently it doesn't review the city manager's self-approved expense reports.

New city manager Linda Cochrane said there is already lots of oversight of her work through reports, performance reviews, and her contact with councillors at committee and council meetings.

She said she doesn't believe trip approvals are warranted.

She said her job is to oversee the work of 13,000 city employees, and it's the responsibility of the city manager to balance that with the need for travel.

"I don't believe that approvals for different aspects of the city manager's job are particularly required," she said.

In Calgary, the mayor reviews city manager expenses. Iveson said trying to approve individual trips for the city manager in Edmonton would create a "cumbersome new approval bureaucracy."

"I think the challenge is that the employee reports to council, not to the mayor," Iveson said. "If you're going to set up a proper reporting and approval system, it's going to have 13 signatures on it, which is pretty cumbersome."

Policy changes coming

Iveson said he met with the city manager and the city auditor, the only city employees who report directly to council. He said he pitched a new way to keep them accountable for their expenses.

Iveson suggested both officials post their expenses online, just as council does. He said those reports will also be included in the annual performance reviews of both employees.

Cochrane said she plans to take things a step farther, and extend the disclosure policy to all senior members of the administration.

"The corporate leadership team and I have been discussing that, just in the spirit of this, so that it doesn't have to be investigated," Cochrane said.

Senior management is expected to disclose their expenses and travel in the near future.

Iveson said there were a number of reasons why the city let Farbrother go. He said the new city manager will be more focused on her work at home.

"What I can tell you is that our expectation of the new city manager is quite clear in terms of priority around ensuring we have effective delivery of our major projects," he said.

Simon Farbrother could not be reached for comment for this story, despite repeated attempts.

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