Team lunches, gifts and upgraded tech: Councillors’ expenses come to light in new report

New rules will be coming soon to govern how city councillors can spend their budgets and what can be claimed.

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart wants taxpayers and her colleagues to know there’s a new sheriff in town.

With the resignation of former councillor Ray Jones last fall, Colley-Urquhart was named the new chair of a little-known board, the Coordinating Committee of the Councillors’ Office (CCCO).

The CCCO oversees the operations of the offices and the spending that gets approved.

Colley-Urquhart recently received a 26 page report on ways to tighten up spending policies and procedures in those offices.

Inconsistent rules

One thing the veteran councillor has found is there’s currently a lack of consistency in the rules and how they’re applied.

“I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of variation and on top of that, there aren’t a lot of rules and policies that people have to adhere to,” said Colley-Urquhart.

She’s discovered that the chair of CCCO has the ability to singlehandedly approve some spending by their colleagues.

Ward 13 Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart is the new chair of the committee that oversees the operation of the councillors’ offices. She says she’s not happy with some of the spending. (Mike Symington/CBC)

During the ongoing controversy over Coun. Joe Magliocca’s improperly claimed travel and hospitality expenses, Colley-Urquhart said Jones approved some items without being properly submitted.

“He would have given his yay or nay to these things on a discretionary basis,” she said.

Working group

Council created a council expense working group to examine the existing rules and make recommendations.

That group includes the city solicitor, the city manager’s chief of staff, the chief financial officer and council’s ethics advisor.

Colley-Urquhart said she’s received that 26 page report which includes recommendations for changes.

Her goal is to see the policies for the councillors’ offices come into line with those of the City of Calgary and its employees.

She gives the example of councillors who take their staff out to lunch or dinner and then claim that as a legitimate ward expense.

“This sort of thing would not be allowed by city staff but it is allowed by the politicians and their staff,” said Colley-Urquhart.

Range of spending

Last year’s expense reports filed by city councillors show a wide variety of spending and differing priorities.

Every member of council had a total of $280,900 in their budget last year.

The vast majority of that money is for staff salaries. Each councillor has two or three assistants.

All councillors reported an unspent balance for 2020.

Coun. Jyoti Gondek left $100,699 unspent from her budget while Coun. Sean Chu spent the most, leaving just $6,926 unspent.

Any unspent money is returned to the city’s rainy day fund, the Fiscal Stability Reserve.

Some spending by councillors might catch taxpayers’ attention but all of the expenses were approved.

A few councillors spend thousands of dollars on newsletters or advertising in their wards.

Spending on staff

Some councillors chose to spend some of their budget on taking their office staff out for meals or buying them recognition gifts.

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra took his office staff out 19 times last year to local restaurants and cafes. That cost $743.

Ward 9 Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra says that when he does take his team out for a meal or a coffee, they patronize businesses in his ward. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

As well, he spent a total of $1,429 on staff appreciation gifts for his three assistants.

Carra makes no apologies, saying that he is also an employer and this spending is allowed under the existing rules.

He notes these were all working lunches or dinners.

“You’re never not working in this job and that counts for me and that certainly counts for my staff,” said Carra. 

He also points out that his staff takes a lot of abuse from the public so he likes to show them some appreciation.

When Carra takes his team out for a meal or a coffee, he said they patronize businesses in his ward.

“I have no problem using my budget to support local businesses, to be out and about in the community.”

Below is a list of unspent councillor budgets:

  • Ward 1, Ward Sutherland $42,123               
  • Ward 2, Joe Magliocca $62,922               
  • Ward 3, Jyoti Gondek $100,699             
  • Ward 4, Sean Chu $6,926                 
  • Ward 5, George Chahal $38,494               
  • Ward 6, Jeff Davison $39,410               
  • Ward 7, Druh Farrell $50,308 
  • Ward 8, Evan Woolley $18,111
  • Ward 9, Gian-Carlo Carra $22,491
  • Ward 10, $80,622
  • Ward 11, Jeromy Farkas $28,727
  • Ward 12, Shane Keating $89,879
  • Ward 13, Diane Colley-Urquhart $75,891
  • Ward 14, Peter Demong $43,034

Black Lives Matter

Coun. Evan Woolley has a different take on how he uses his budget.

He also takes his office staff out regularly to thank them for their long hours. They even went on an overnight out of town retreat to do planning for the year ahead.

He also used his budget to spend thousands of dollars to help him respond to the rising concern on racism following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in the U.S.

Woolley’s expense report shows he spent $5,000 on a public opinion poll on the Calgary Police, $2,100 on anti-racism consulting and $2,588 on a local artist. She was involved in consulting and facilitating work on Black Lives Matter murals as well as other public art projects.

This spending was within existing rules and was approved.

Woolley notes that the issues surrounding racism were major ones in his inner city ward and he wanted to ensure he was fully prepared to meet that challenge.

“This idea and this process was one that my constituents found was really important,” said Woolley.

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“We did not have the in-house resources to facilitate that groundswell of support and those kinds of projects and so we leaned out for help. And we got it.”

Woolley said that his ward is home to lots of artists and arts organization as well as being the home of the Beltline Urban Murals Project.

So he decided it was appropriate to work with an artist on bringing attention to the issues surrounding Black Lives Matter.

Woolley, who has announced he will not be seeking re-election this fall, said that not all wards have the same needs and the ward budgets should be responsive to the fact some needs are higher in some parts of the city than others.

He also said that the budgets are a resource for councillors to adequately do their jobs.

Technology spending

One of the new rules that Colley-Urquhart hopes will be tightened up is with regards to office technology.

In a year overshadowed by a pandemic, councillor expense reports show thousands of dollars being spent on new laptops, mobile phones, earbuds, cases and other tech material.

She said that technology actually belongs to the City of Calgary and not the person using it.

Right now, she isn’t sure where that gear ends up.

“Lord knows that we’ve been using a lot more of it with COVID, that it needs to be detailed, itemized, centralized and on a checklist so that it gets turned back in when people leave office,” said Colley-Urquhart.

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