PEI

Charlottetown mayor says time to rein in costs to attend national meetings

Charlottetown Mayor Philip Brown says there will be a review of the city's expenses for attending off-Island conferences — with an eye to cutting costs.

'Great job perk' for politicians and staff, says Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Charlottetown Mayor Philip Brown says 'we have to do better coordination, from the office of the mayor, that we get these bookings in early.' (Laura Meader/CBC)

Charlottetown Mayor Philip Brown says there will be a review of the city's expenses for attending off-Island conferences — with an eye to cutting costs.

This after seven councillors, three city staff and the mayor attended the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Quebec City in May at a cost of $43,993.22 to taxpayers — up from the $24,599 spent to go to the same conference in Halifax the year before.

Why they left it until later than what my wife and I did, that's a decision they made.— Philip Brown

"There will be a review," Brown told CBC News.

"At some point in time we may have to look at sending half the council to one, sending another half to the next FCM — but again that's a discussion that will be held by council."

Among the mayor and council members who attended the four-day meeting, Brown had the cheapest trip at $3,478. Most councillors' expenses were above $4,000 with Mitch Tweel spending the most at $4,770.

The cost of airfare and accommodations among those who attended varied. To ensure costs are more uniform in the future, Brown said from now on flights and hotels must be booked much earlier.

Brown's wife also went to Quebec City but paid her own way.

"Why they left it until later than what my wife and I did, that's a decision they made," he said. "We have to do better co-ordination, from the office of the mayor, that we get these bookings in early."

He said mayor and council have to make a "collective decision" to lower costs.

"It's not our dollars, this is public dollars and we have to be responsible and respectful how we spend that money," he said.

'Nobody travels first class'

Council members from Stratford, Cornwall, Summerside and Miltonvale Park also attended the conference in Quebec.

Stratford Mayor Steve Ogden did not attend, but four councillors did, costing taxpayers just over $14,500. Cornwall Mayor Minerva McCourt and four councillors went at a cost of $14,600.

Stratford Mayor Steve Ogden says 'we do look at the plans and approve the plans ahead of time. Nobody travels first class.' (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Ogden said three Stratford councillors chose to drive instead of getting airfare in an attempt to save some money. Coun. Gail MacDonald had to fly, Ogden said, but it was important that she attend as she's the chair of finance for the town. 

"We thought it was worth the extra expense for her to fly," he said.

"We don't set a specific amount for each councillor, however we do look at the plans and approve the plans ahead of time. Nobody travels first class."

Ogden said the town is conscious of spending taxpayers' money and, in the case of FCM, saw it as an investment "that it will pay off, hopefully, in savings and in future revenue generation."

Summerside hasn't released its expenses yet as some councillors were late submitting receipts. A city spokesperson told CBC he expects a full report on expenses to be on the city's website next week.

'We are on it very early'

McCourt said those attending from Cornwall were given a deadline if they wanted to go to the conference and said town staff booked accommodations early to get the best deal.

Cornwall Mayor Minerva McCourt says the town booked accommodations outside the city centre to save on costs. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

"This is the residents' money, right, so it's in the plans to keep it as cost-effective as can be," she said. "We are on it very early and our staff is always researching, looking to see the best buy."

The accommodations booked were away from the city centre, she said, to save on some costs. As well, those who went "took transit every day."

One councillor rented at car, she said, at their own expense.

'Great job perk'

Paige MacPherson, Atlantic director with Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the FCM is a "great job perk" for politicians and staff to get photo ops but "ultimately there's not much additional value derived from attending these conferences."

She questioned why so many from P.E.I. had to attend and why there isn't more of an effort to use online conferencing.

'Any effort to save taxpayer dollars, especially on things like this where really the benefit to taxpayers is not crystal clear … is good,' says Canadian Taxpayers Federation Atlantic director Paige MacPherson. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

"This is 2019, many businesses themselves have switched over to doing web conferencing or just using the internet to reduce costs," she said. "Governments are perfectly capable of doing the same thing."

There is some value in sending the absolute bare minimum of staff to these meetings to show face, she said. But she sees little tangible value for taxpayers to have more than that attend.

Regarding Charlottetown's plan to review costs in future, MacPherson said "any effort to save taxpayer dollars, especially on things like this where really the benefit to taxpayers is not crystal clear … is good."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cody MacKay

Multi-platform Journalist

Cody MacKay is a writer, editor and social media producer for CBC News on Prince Edward Island. From Summerside, he's a UPEI history and Carleton masters of journalism grad who joined CBC P.E.I. in 2017. You can reach him at cody.mackay@cbc.ca or on social media as @CodyBMac

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