Clearly, Greater Sudbury’s policy governing how staff and city councillors claim mileage needs updating.
Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini and Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan faced questions from their colleagues during the March 29 finance and administration committee meeting for mileage expenses they claimed in 2021.
How, their colleagues wondered, during a year when meetings and events were held virtually, could Vagnini claim more than $13,000 in mileage expenses while Kirwan claimed more than $3,500?
The travel expenses of most other councillors were in the hundreds of dollars for the past two years because COVID-19 kept people close to home. Only Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier’s $3,600 in claimed mileage was as high, but since the rural councillor continued to travel to Tom Davies Square for meetings, his expenses were not questioned.
During the meeting, Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh said she was “uncomfortable” with some of the expenses claimed and so are we. We echo her call for a review of the travel and expense policy.
Kirwan and Vagnini cited similar reasons for running up such a tab. Kirwan told his colleagues he had no specific reason for the 1,700 kilometres of travel around Ward 5; he just wanted to see “how playgrounds and roads and everything else was going.” Vagnini also said he often drives around Ward 2 to see what’s what. In addition, he also told city hall reporter Tyler Clarke that he prefers to visit constituents in person if they have an issue, rather than speaking with them on the phone, so that accounts for some of the mileage he accumulated.
Councillors should know what is happening in their wards, so we would not fault an elected official for conducting fact-finding or information-gathering excursions in order to better serve constituents.
We also want to make it clear that we do not see any reason to doubt the veracity of the councillors’ mileage claims.
That said, Vagnini’s expenses are so far outside the norm as to raise our collective eyebrows. We did the math. He said he spends four days out of seven on the road in his ward. In order to drive the 26,076 kilometres he claims he did, he was driving 501 kilometres a week.
Sure, Vagnini has a large ward and, as we said, a councillor should know what is happening in their neck of the woods, but what possible insights could be gleaned from the councillor spending so much time simply driving around Ward 2? Is that really the best use of his time and our tax money?
The two councillors’ mileage claims are not the real issue though. No, here is the real kicker: The city’s travel and expense policy is written so vaguely that it includes a loophole large enough for every city councillor to drive their vehicles through with room to spare.
By-law 2016-16F tells us that elected officials will be reimbursed for mileage for attending council and board meetings, and “for any other City related travel within the city,” a phrase so loosely worded it is almost utterly devoid of meaning.
Put another way, councillors and staff can be reimbursed for anything an official might claim is city-related — it could be attending a board meeting or it could be driving to the grocery store along a municipal road and calling it reviewing road infrastructure.
A mileage claim form does need to be filed that requires the claimant to disclose the reason for their travel, but the way the bylaw is written, “city related travel” could mean almost anything; all that seems to matter is what the official says they were doing.
The taxpayer has no way of knowing if those expenses are legitimate and neither do the staff who approve the expense.
Closing the loophole by inserting new provisions into the policy and bylaw is an appropriate way to address the issue. A limit should be placed on how much mileage can be claimed in a year, as right now there is no limit. As well, the bylaw should define what “city related travel within the city” actually means and what specifically can be claimed for mileage.
As much as we would like to take people at face value, legislation governing the expense of taxpayer money cannot be based on the honour system. Rules are written for the minority who break them, after all, not the majority who do not.
It is high time we cinch up this loophole. It is just too bad we have to wait until 2023 to do it.
Sudbury.com's editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.