Letter critical of Mayor and city manager held up by Black Press for three months!

Letter critical of Mayor and City Manager held up by Black Press for three months!

[Editor's Note: Apparently this letter was submitted to the Quesnel Cariboo Observer on the 24th of June, 2011 and the publication of it was held back for reasons unknown. Eventually the author of it and other concerned citizens in Quesnel decided to go ahead and print the letter and along with a handout explaining why it was held up by Black Press for so long, deliver it to Quesnel residents. Being made aware of this the Observer's editor Autumn Macdonald was finally able to gain permission from those in authority to run it. All in all a rather sad day for a publication that purports to be informing the community in an open and honest way. It's but one of the reasons why Quesnel and area require an alternative voice such as the Sentinel.]

Dear Editor:                                                                                           

I submitted a letter to the Editor of the Quesnel Cariboo Observer that appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition that was headlined “Roadblock.” In the article, I expressed my astonishment at the ridiculous $262.00 charge Levied against the City’s Finance Portfolio holder, Councilor Sushil Thapar for requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) pertinent to his portfolio. He requested information relevant to council and the city manager’s travel expense claims. In his clarifying article published June 03, 2011, in the Observer, I was pleased to read the absurd charge for doing the job we elected him to do, regarding his portfolio and our money, was expunged. I was under the impression that common sense had prevailed by the initiator(s) of this questionable type of censorship. I could not have been more mistaken.
 
It appeared the Mayor and the city manager had exhausted every possibility to prevent Councilor Thapar from getting information on council and the city manager’s travel expense claim(s). Wrong again. Before cancellation of the fee, the city manager with the approval of the mayor, submitted a request to the City Solicitors for a legal interpretation of the regulation that refers to fee exclusions for obtaining information under the FOI Act. City Bylaw 1297 Appendix 1, item 75(5) refers. On the radio June 22, 2011, the mayor gave her reasoning for submitting this matter for legal counsel advice due to the complexity of interpretation of the FOI Act. See if you can interpret the fifty four-word regulation the mayor and the city manager were unable too. It reads as follows:

“The power to excuse an applicant from paying all or part of a fee if, in the Head’s opinion, the applicant cannot afford the payment or for any other reason it is fair to excuse payment where the record relates to a matter of public interest, including the environment or public health or safety.”

Because the last eight words are not applicable in this case, the 54 words are reduced to 46 that require interpretation. If the spending of our tax dollars is not in the public interest, what is? If Councilor Thapar, who we elected to represent us, is disallowed access to his portfolio by the mayor and the city manager, they should be required to validate their actions with a realistic public explanation. Failing this, should they not be personally responsible for the unnecessary and outrageous waste of our money as outlined below?
 
The submission by the mayor and the city manager in attempting to get a legal ruling validating the absurd charge against Councilor Thapar has cost us as taxpayers a total of $2,892.96, including HST, to cancel what was an invalid charge in the first place. Look for a possible additional charge of $91.84 when the city solicitor realizes he has made a mathematical error in his breakdown of his FOI Legal fees invoice that he provided to the city manager by email dated 17 June 2011. On April 20, 2011 he spent 3.20 hours on the interpretation, April 21, 6.40 more hours, and a decision reached April 26, after three more hours of pondering.
 
A responsible city manager would no doubt have stipulated for interpretation, the exclusion regulation only. If so, the city solicitor seems also to have had a problem interpreting the 54 words comprising the exclusion provision.  Why else would it take 13 hours of review? The obvious verdict was Councilor Thapar should not pay the $262.00 fee.
 
Instead of issuing a written apology to Councilor Thapar, a “Motion of Censure” was invoked against him for discussing issues relative to his portfolio with city staff. Notwithstanding, in the legal interpretation that cost us so much, there is included a sentence that states, “Under policy a Councilor can ask a staff member for information.” That information was included in the email to Councilor Thapar by the City Manager, John Stecyk May 3, 2011.
 
On April 26, 2011 City council unanimously voted THAT: all council and city employee travel expense claim forms be filed electronically on the City web page.  It was agreed Council’s request to the Corporate Travel Policy regarding electronic filing on the City website be reviewed in 3 months time and a report be prepared related to staff time for this request.
 
On May 16, 2011 Director of Finance Kari Bolton outlined a “procedure she stated could be implemented with a few minor changes to current practice.” A motion with the same wording as the motion on April 26 was voted on and carried, (4-2) with councilors Oakes and Roodenburg opposed. At the same meeting Mayor Sjostrom, seconded Councilor Couldwell and resolved: THAT: effective June 1, 2011, copies of all expense claims for Council and Senior management be included in the Council Agendas (Things to do list, according to Councilor Thapar) on a six month trial basis, upon which the procedure will be reviewed. “Note reviewed.” This motion effectively prevents Councilor Thapar from disclosing the contents of the travel expense claims the mayor and the city manager have taken such costly and desperate measures to prevent until after the next election due on November 19, 2011.
 
In a column in The Observer by Mayor Sjostrom June 3, 2011 she made the following comment:

We’re committed to, and take pride in being an open, honest and transparent local government. If you ever have questions about the work council is doing, please contact us.

If the mayor is sincere in the statement she is reported to have made, she and the city manager should back off and allow Councilor Thapar to do the job we elected him to do. I am a concerned taxpayer and probably many other taxpayers in Quesnel are also.

Ken Butchard
Quesnel, B.C.