City files Q-2 travel report
The St. John’s department of public works and parks piled up the city’s travel bill in April after four staffers attended a snow conference in North Carolina and got snowed in.
The department spent a little more than $18,000 for the four employees to take part in the North American Snow Conference, according to the city’s second-quarter travel report for the year tabled at Tuesday’s council meeting.
From April to June, city council and staff spent about $93,000 on travel, with staff filing most claims, hovering around the $78,000 mark.
Of the $15,000 spent by council, about half was spent by St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe on three trips — meetings in Houston for the World Energy Cities Partnership and Offshore Technology Conference, meetings in Vancouver with the big city mayors and Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and a real estate forum in Halifax.
The lowest was spent by Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary on a trip to Bay Roberts for the stewardship Association of Municipalities annual meeting, at $324.84.
In second place, on the staff side, was economic development at $12,600 for three employees to attend four conferences which included cruise symposiums as well as the Offshore Oil Conference in Houston and meetings in Calgary.
The lowest was spent by non-profit housing at $267.50.
The travel bill for the city for the first quarter, filed in March, was about $70,000 — $60,000 spent by staff and $10,00 by councillors.
O’Leary, who is running for
the mayor’s chair in September’s election, said when she went through the second quarter report, the four employees who went to the snow conference caught her attention.
“I remember thinking, did we really need to send four of our staffers?” O’Leary said in an interview Thursday.
“So that would be the only question. I’m a supporter of professional development and believe strongly that it’s important to see what is going on in the rest of the world and what the best practices are. We just have to make sure we’re not sending too many to conferences,” said the councillor-at-large.
St. John’s businessman Ron Ellsworth, who is running for deputy mayor, said one of the concerns of council several years ago when he was a member, was the idea of multiple people travelling to the same events.
“Obviously you need to travel to learn from other communities, towns and businesses, but we don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel,” said Ellsworth.
One of the things the council he served with believed in, he said, was training the trainer where one or two people would go to a conference and come back and train others.
O’Keefe, who is seeking re-election, said there are checks and balances in place to ensure there isn’t any abuse of the travel budget.
“I know in the case of council, all travel is approved by council before any of it occurs. In the case of staff travel, the appropriate approvals are in place, too,” he said.
Deputy city managers and senior staff who approve travel, O’Keefe said, are well aware of the need for it, which can include promoting the city or training for staff.
“When the city travels, we all travel judiciously in an attempt to keep costs down. All staff and council, when travelling for city business, are very circumspect in their spending and in their expenses,” he said when asked if he thought the dollar figure for three months was high.
Travel costs are part of the cost of doing business, says Geoff Chauk, the third candidate in the running for the mayor’s chair.
“l, however, believe big organizations need to be using Internet meeting opportunities more, so that out-of-province, or out of the city, travel costs are minimized, and time is better utilized, and not lost on travel,” he said.
Chaulk said he was disappointed when he heard O’Keefe flew to a meeting in Vancouver, in June, to discuss issues related to homelessness and affordable housing, when he could have accomplished more at home.
“He could have attended that meeting via Skype or webcast, from the comfort of his office, saving us thousands of dollars. The money for his travel would have been better used by giving it to one of the faith-based groups, like mine, that regularly serve the hungry in our city,” he said.
O’Keefe said staff and council are cautious when they consider spending money on travel.
“It’s not done flippantly and not done without analyzing the need for travel and seeing the city gets a benefit from whatever the travel is directed at, whether it be for training or technical information,” he said.
Community activist Jennifer McCreath, who is also seeking the deputy mayor’s position, said it’s all about being prudent with taxpayers’ dollars and making smart decisions about when to travel and who would be the best person to send.
“Obviously it is important to promote this city, especially when we’re talking about tourism. If we want the world to come here we have to go to the world,” she said.
“At the same time, is a face-to-face meeting the best way to do that or is there other ways we can reach out? Technology is booming — Internet sites, social media. I personally would like to see a little more effort made to use those tools to reach other people, as well. It would certainly cost a lot less than booking a plane ticket, that’s for sure,” said McCreath.