By Villeneuve, Melissa on September 14, 2017.
Lethbridge city councillor Blaine Hyggen and Mayor Chris Spearman want to clear the air over council travel expenses.
Their comments came in response to a story posted online by a local radio station last Thursday. The article states how much each councillor and the mayor has spent through their travel expense accounts over the past couple years, information readily available on the City of Lethbridge website.
Travel expense summaries are listed for each of the last four years, with a breakdown of spending by each council member. In the years 2015-2017, each city councillor is allocated an annual travel budget of $7,000 and a per diem of $3,500. The mayor receives an annual $18,000 travel budget and a $10,000 per diem budget.
According to the information, some councillors have gone over budget in some years, while other councillors use little, if any, of their travel budget.
Hyggen went over the allocated amount in three out of the last four years. In 2014, he went $4,140 over his $7,000 budget (not including per diems). In 2015, he was over by $2,800 of the $10,500, and this year so far he has gone $4,353 over his budget. He is not the only councillor to go over the allocated amount.
Coun. Ryan Parker went over his 2014 budget by about $1,800, and in 2016, Coun. Liz Iwaskiw went over by $782.
In contrast, Coun. Joe Mauro has not spent any of his allocated budget over the past four years. Coun. Rob Miyashiro didn’t use any of his $10,500 allocation in 2016, and so far this year, Parker has used zero, while Coun. Jeff Coffman has used only $75.
While Hyggen and Spearman don’t dispute the numbers, looking at numbers doesn’t tell the full story. The travel budget is a “pot” in which all councillors share, with a dollar amount allocated per councillor, they explained.
And every year as a council, they have not used more than 74 per cent of the overall annual $84,000. Over the past four years, council has collectively used $193,243, or about 58 per cent, of its $336,000 travel expense budget.
AlI council travel must receive prior approval from the mayor and City Manager. Hyggen followed this policy with all of his travel, Spearman confirmed.
Hyggen says he wishes he didn’t go over his allocated amount, but he still wouldn’t do anything differently.
“I’m not upset to say that I spent it. I think it was spent in the correct way,” said Hyggen. “I just found that I needed to do some of this travel and education to be able to better serve the community.”
As a first-term councillor, Hyggen said he wanted to understand what was happening throughout the community. He participated on several committees, some of which required a fair bit of travel. For example, he sat on the ATB Centre Project Steering Committee. They had the opportunity to visit similar centres in Alberta to learn about best practices and bring some cost-saving features back to the community.
“It’s important to gather as much information as you can before you make the decisions,” said Spearman. “If you just come to a meeting and vote on it randomly without having done any research, without having learned from others across the provinceÉ you can’t do that by staying in Lethbridge.”
Hyggen also accompanied Spearman on the 12-day Lethbridge Trade Mission Delegation to Asia. The trip was to promote Lethbridge as a good city for businesses to invest in.
“And we’re seeing that already. We’ve seen some of those opportunities come in,” said Hyggen. “That would definitely be one of the larger costs for sure in this last year’s budget.”
On the Asia trip, Hyggen’s expenses were $9,447 including travel and a per diem, while Spearman’s expenses were $6,304.
The reason Hyggen’s were higher is because Spearman typically elects not to claim a per diem, though he is allowed. Being mayor is already a full-time job but councillors are paid for part-time work, and travel takes them away from their other employment.
Spearman said Hyggen is “one of the hardest-working councillors” and for him to step away from his business costs him money.
“You do get paid to run for council, but people like Coun. Hyggen, who have to step away from their business, deserve to be compensated from that,” he said. “I believe that the compensation that he’s claimed is fair. When you look at expenses of council as a group, there are some councillors who participate on committees that require travelling and Coun. Hyggen has been really on most of those committees.”
Spearman said it was valuable to have Hyggen along on the Asia trip as he is a local business owner and could share his experiences.
“When you’re getting a return on investment that is multiple times what you spent on your trip, I think the money was well spent,” said Spearman. There have been three Chinese delegations come to Lethbridge since their trip, one that is investing “millions of dollars” and creating jobs in southern Alberta with Starfield greenhouses, he explained.
In July 2014, council approved the travel policy, which included travel expenses reported on a monthly basis and per diems to be included on the City’s public website effective Jan. 1, 2015. This motion was brought forward by Hyggen, along with late Coun. Wade Galloway, to provide more transparency to the public.
It isn’t clear how much past councils have spent on travel expenses in previous years. Coun. Hyggen and Miyashiro are the only first-term councillors, as the others have served for up to six terms.
“I think it’s fair for each councillor to do in their good conscience what they feel is right and then be accountable for it,” said Spearman. “What they spent or didn’t spend, councillors should be accountable for in every way. I wouldn’t only pick on somebody who spent more than others. I would be asking others why didn’t you spend any money?”
Spearman said he stands behind Hyggen. When someone runs for council, he said, they can “choose just to come to the council meetings or you can invest in issues, learn about them, and we can make decisions here in the city that benefit the citizens.”
As there will be surplus from this council’s travel expense budget, half of that money will go back into the Municipal Revenue Stabilization Reserve and the rest will be carried over to the next council for discretionary uses.
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