Council Monday clashed over Saanich’s financial transparency, as the District prepares for its first 2018 financial plan meeting

Saanich councillors spar over financial transparency

A Saanich councillor a debate last week about the timing of all budget material including power points added up to an unnecessary waste of time.

“I think it’s disingenious and a waste of our time,” said Coun. Vicki Sanders in an interview.

She made these comments after Saanich council debated a motion from Coun. Karen Harper that directed staff to make all budget materials including staff PowerPoint presentations available “for consideration by both [council] and the public no later than the date of the agenda release for these meetings.”

Council is scheduled to start debate on the financial plan Tuesday.

Sanders said in the interview that Harper’s motion called for the status quo and that both Mayor Richard Atwell — who supported Harper’s failed motion — are fully aware of efforts to improve the budget review process in time for the next budget cycle.

During Monday’s discussion, Harper acknowledged efforts by Saanich to improve the budget preview process. Saanich’s finance finding committee earlier this month discussed new ways to involve the public, with a new plan available in time for 2020. But until such time, Saanich can do better, she said.

“The purpose of this motion is transparency in governance, so members of the public will be equally aware of the release date as are councillors and staff,” said Harper at the time, adding that the motion does not amend current council policy.

“I’m a bit disappointed,” said Harper, when it became clear that the motion was going to fail. “This isn’t just the status quo. The motion does say all budget materials.” The budget is complicated, she said. “Which is why we need to have it available in its entirety as soon as possible, so that we can really do our very best with it.”Harper also said she was not trying to offend anyone by framing her motion in the interest of “transparency.”

But staff and several councillors questioned not only the effects of the motion but also its spirit.

Paul Thorkelsson, Saanich’s chief administrative officer (CAO), said he is not aware of any incidents over the course of the last two budget cycles during which the public did not have access to the material at the same time as council.

“From my perspective, this motion is superfluous,” he said. “It is calling on staff to do what is a matter of course, and I question whether it is of any valid value to council other than [as] a political statement.”

As for the availability of PowerPoint slides, they represent consolidated statements about the budget, and staff may be working on them right up to the start of the meeting, when they are due to present, he said.

Coun. Fred Haynes said he was “troubled by a tone of condemnation” coming from members of the public. “I understand members of the public can be grumpy about taxes. I am too.” But Saanich has been ab transparent, he said. “I see those documents the same time you see those documents. We see them both at the same time.”

Coun. Judy Brownoff said the motion “shocked” her. Over the years, she has never received any complaints from the public. “Putting this is on the agenda makes this agenda makes it seem as if staff are not doing their job, and they are,” she said.

Mayor Richard Atwell said he expected Harper’s motion to be “an easy one” to pass. Given the singular importance of the budget, it is important for the public to have all the relevant information, including slides, when it matters, said Atwell, who added that the motion aligns with other calls for more comprehensive and timely information.

“I think staff have the time to do it,” he said. “It is just a matter of making it a priority, of when we want to see it, and when we want to give it to the public, so we can have a conversation [with the public].”

This comment prompted Haynes to interject. “That is disparaging on staff, Mr. Mayor,” he said.

“Coun. Haynes, you didn’t take a point of order, you are just speaking over me,” responded Atwell in denying Haynes’ claim. “What I just said, and what I said previously in my earlier statement, was that staff have limited time, so we have to set priorities to decide what we want to see ahead of other things.”

Harper’s main motion eventually failed 6-3, as did an amendment to send the issue to a future meeting of Saanich’s finance committee, 8 to 1. The committee, for the record, would have met after the first financial planning meeting, scheduled for Feb. 27.

The lead-up to the vote was perhaps as contentious as the debate itself. When Harper first presented her motion, she failed to earn a seconder. This failure prompted Atwell to ask Wergeland to serve as chair, a move that allowed Atwell to second the motion to get it on the floor for debate. Coun. Colin Plant, however, wondered whether Atwell acted in accordance with council procedures.

Angila Bains, manager of legislative services, responded by saying Saanich’s procedures do not clearly state whether the mayor can make or second motions. But Robert’s Rules of Order states that the mayor “may make or second a motion” to move business along.

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