August 22, 2012

Mayor takes heat after forgetting party emails

As published in The Erin Advocate

Mayor Lou Maieron came under scathing criticism at last week's council meeting, after he said he had forgotten about an email informing him in advance about a taxpayer-funded retirement party held in April.

In a June 5 report, the mayor said he had been unable to answer taxpayer questions about a party for former Town Manager Lisa Hass. "Please explain how $5,000 of taxpayers' money was spent on this celebration without Council approval? Without the mayor knowing at all, until he signed cheques?" he wrote, and concluded, "Other than being invited and asked to bring greetings as the Mayor, I was not involved or consulted in this at all."

But an email from three months earlier, from the mayor to Treasurer Sharon Marshall, addressed as Personal and Confidential, was published with the council agenda last week. On March 5, the mayor asked about the planned party:

"Is funding for this coming out of the employee social fund or will it come from the 2012 budget? ...just getting the information as I know I will be asked the Q's...Lisa deserves a wonderful retirement send off. But like anyone else, she had her friends and her foes, and her foes will ask the tough Q's. Being prepared is the good boy scout motto."

Marshall responded the next day, "We do not have a formal, consistent 'party' policy. The scale – and therefore 'costs' – are tailored to the person retiring. The taxpayer pays the cost of any function run by staff – including retirement parties...Where does this end up in a budget? The costs are allocated to "admin misc" if it is for an admin staff (as Lisa is)."

At last week's meeting Maieron said, "I honestly forgot about those two emails."

Councillor John Brennan told the mayor, "The whole thing troubles me. I don't think you handled this as well as you should have. Your report was fraudulent – it wasn't true...I can see why staff would see this as a personal attack.

"You didn't bring forward concerns when you had ample opportunity. The June 5 report was misleading."

Maieron said he had not been misleading, but just forgetful. He complimented Administrative Assistant Connie Cox for doing a great job on the party, but said he had been unaware of the traditions involved and maintained his right to question the cost and lack of clear policy.

Councillor Barb Tocher said staff acted properly and that Maieron could have got more information through discussion with them before launching his public protest.

"You talk about being clear and transparent...but it seems to me you were not doing your homework," she said. The mayor could have suggested the need for a celebration policy, "but the rest of the gobbledygook in that report didn't need to be there."

Council did vote unanimously to have staff work on a celebration policy.

In his latest report to council (submitted in July but deferred to August), the mayor suggests that the three "lady councillors" should not have discussed the retiree's gift. Cox had asked Tocher for advice about the gift, and whether the mayor should be consulted.

Tocher said she later had an informal conversation in the hallway with a councillor about the gift, and that a third councillor walked up and joined the discussion. She said there was no intent to meet behind the mayor's back, but that she was under no obligation to report the conversation to him or the full council.

"These types of non-transparent, un-accountable actions need to stop now," said Maieron, suggesting that the councillors' conversation "could be considered an improper council meeting". He said that it effectively bumped up the value of the gift from the 25-year long-service award level of $250, to a final amount of $676.

The appropriate gift amount is unclear, however, since what Cox called "very extravagant" gifts had been given to retiring department heads in the past. The gift for Hass was a single retirement gift, with the $250 long-service award amount applied towards it. "This enabled me to purchase a suitable gift for Lisa's status without overspending," said Cox, in her June response to the mayor.

In his last report, the mayor says that some taxpayers "state that there seems to be a sense of entitlement and subterfuge in how this event came to be".

Treasurer Marshall says that all the invoices were properly processed as per the Procurement Bylaw, and paid out of amounts designated for celebrations in the budget approved by council.

Councillor Deb Callaghan apologized to staff who were embarrassed by the controversy. "Staff did follow policy. I don't think staff did anything wrong, and there was no intent to mislead council or the public."

Councillor Josie Wintersinger said, "There were errors on both sides to some degree. We'll all take some of the blame and move on."

Maieron summed up the situation in his opening comment of last week's debate: "It's too bad it turned out this way."