Trent Ernst, Editor
At the Council meeting on July 4, Council passed the 2014 Statement of Financial Information (SOFI) report for the third time.
The SOFI report is required to be filed annually, and discloses the District’s Audited Financial Statements as well as what staff and Council received over the year, and the amount paid to vendors.
However, the previous versions of the SOFI have been “plagued” with mistakes, according to a report by Chris Leggett, the former Chief Financial Officer for the District of Tumbler Ridge.
These mistakes have been the cause of some concern for a group of residents. At the May 2 version of Council, a number of the mistakes were corrected. According to CAO Jordan Wall, “These inconsistencies have caused much confusion as to the expenses of Mayor and Council.”
According to the report, “When the SOFI was originally constructed some of the expenses were not correctly accounted for. This was due to the staff member usually tasked with constructing the SOFI being away and the data subsequently being pulled from the incorrect source.”
This led to a number of inaccuracies, the most notable of which was the fact that then Mayor Darwin Wren’s expenses had been listed under “contractors,” and not under expenses. This led to him having zero in expenses listed, though according to a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act request, his expenses were $24,366.33.
It wasn’t the only mistake. Also corrected in the report were the expenses for the Councillors. “In the SOFI 2014, Helen Scott, Joanne Kirby, Darryl Krakowka and Will Howe were newly elected Councillors at the end of 2014, their expenses totaled $7431. We questioned their expenses number because as newly elected Councillors for a month they did not travel and would not have received expense cheques for the year 2014. The expense report…is not supported and seems inappropriate given the election date,” writes Brenda Holmlund, one of a group of concerned citizens, in a letter to Minister Peter Fassbender on March 7.
At the time, the group asked for the Ministry of Community, Sports and Cultural Development to investigate their findings. While the Ministry has not done so, the District revised their SOFI to address the issues in the letter.
However, according to a second letter written by Holmlund, there were still mistakes. “Town hall must consider the matter finished,” she writes. “Our group considers this premature.”
The group asked for three things: First, they want to know why Wren was listed as a contractor in 2012 and 2014, secondly, they want to see the individual records for expenses of Wren for 2014 and they want to see the individual records for expenses of Wren for 2012, when Wren was also erroneously labeled as a contractor.
“We are a group of residents of Tumbler Ridge,” writes Holmlund. “We are ordinary people who expect our municipality to be transparent and willing to give information on how our tax monies are being spent. We took action by requesting information under the Freedom of Information Privacy and Protection Act of British Columbia.”
According to CAO Wall, the answer to the first question is simply that it was a mistake. “As explained in the May 2 report this was a mistake and should not have taken place,” writes Wall in a report to Council. “Administration has found no evidence that Mr. Wren ever had a contractor relationship with the District of Tumbler Ridge.”
For the second two requests, Wall says administration will provide that information under a Freedom of Information request.
Wall says administration has made multiple offers to meet with Holmlund to explain these matters. However, says Wall, she has “on each occasion rejected or ignored these offers.”
Wall says administration has been very open with the group, responding to previous emails, typically on the same day.
The District of Tumbler Ridge, he says, has in place a purchasing policy that requires a number of steps for Council expenses to be approved. “First the expense must be approved through a Council motion,” he says. “Next Council then submits an expense form based on their anticipated expenses. They will then be issued a cheque for that amount. Upon returning from a trip the accounting department will receive the receipts for the trip. Based on those receipts Council will pay back monies, receive extra, or remain even depending on the documented circumstances.”
Alternatively, he says, Council members can submit receipts to finance at the conclusion of their trip. “Council must submit receipts for their expense in order to be compensated for anything other than their per diem as outlined in District policy.”
Wall says that there have been occasions of Councillors submitting fraudulent receipts in other jurisdictions. Councillors could also “develop a collusionary relationship with the Finance department and have payments made without documented proof. However this would be a very risky venture involving multiple people that would be easily discovered during a review or audit.”
But while these are possibilities, he says there is no evidence whatsoever that either of these scenarios has taken place.
While the group is still not satisfied with the answer, Council is, and, at the July 4 meeting passed a motion directing the CAO not to pursue this matter any further unless required by Provincial statute or through a further motion of Council.
This means that any Freedom of Information requests will be honoured, but administration is unwilling to commit any more staff time to addressing general questions regarding the matter.