City clerk releases financial records of municipal government
The City of Lloydminster has released a massive trove of financial information.
A decision recently made by Acting City Clerk Doug Rodwell will see the release of all accounts payable documents in the coming days. Rodwell has said that these records will be released, without redaction, in printed copies.
“We’ll release them as soon as we can,” said Rodwell, in an interview conducted on August 19.
“They’re quite lengthy documents, so it’ll take us a little while to get them together. Absolutely, we’re willing to release them. There is no reason why we wouldn’t.”
Prior to the decision by Rodwell, the accounts payable documents were not readily available to the public. The documents detail the expenses undertaken by employees, departments, and council members of the City in the form of accounts payable listings.
Rodwell’s decision comes in response to a freedom of information request put forward in January.
The wording of the request had asked for all documents related to expenses in the CAO’s office. Instead, the City gave out the summary of all expenses of the office of the City Manager, which showed the money spent by the CAO’s office on travel was rising each year after 2010.
The total spent by the CAO’s office in that year was $6020. However, in the subsequent years, the amount spent rose to $21,598 in 2011, $29,674 in 2012, $30,769 in 2013, $39,962 in 2014, and $57,367 in 2015.
Accounts payable listings obtained by 106.1 The Goat, prior to Rodwell’s decision, provided some details on the travel costs of city administration, as well as members of council. Examples included two accounts, listed as “Council Travel Expenses” and “Travel and Meals” which appear on the documents, illustrating a series of costs in 2012 and 2013.
In a subsequent interview on August 23, Rodwell said there would be limited redaction, due to privacy legislation. This redaction would be contained to the addresses of individuals mentioned on the accounts payable documents.
As for how the documents could be accessed, Rodwell said it would depend on the nature of the request.
“A person can ask for any piece of information, at which point we would determine whether it would require a FOIP request or not, in order to gain the information,” said Rodwell.
“Information is generally available, or published on the website, we can point to it, we would provide the person with that link and then ask them to go there and download it and print it up. If there is something more involved, or there is a reason that it might fall under the Privacy Act, then you may have to do a FOIP request. It just really depends on the type of information request.”
For background, these documents used to be attached to the official minutes of City Council meetings, until changes began to be made to the structure of the municipal government under the administration of former mayor Jeff Mulligan.
In addition to operational expenses for the City, the accounts payable documents contained the details of expenses undertaken by city council members and senior management officials while operating on City business. It is still possible to view the old lists attached to the City minutes from 2009 and 2010, but any information past the date of July 5, 2010, does not appear to be readily available in the online archives of the municipal government.
The process began six years ago.
In a meeting of City Council on July 5, 2010, changes were made to the way standing committees of City Council functioned. Two sets of former standing committees were merged together, with two of them being the Corporate Affairs and Finance Committees. The new combined committee was called the Corporate Services Committee. The move was tabled by then Alderman Robert Saunders, and seconded by then Alderman Larry Sauer.
This change also moved the accounts payable documents off the minutes of City Council, and made them instead subject to audit and review at the meetings of the Corporate Services Committee.
Subsequent sessions of City Council from that point onwards struck off the “Accounts” portion of the public meetings. This move was part of an effort undertaken during the Mulligan administration to change the internal structure of the municipal government, according to documents attached to council meetings before the change.
Instead, a section concerning the approval of financial statements in each monthly council meeting was put in place, until September 26, 2011, when a second change to the way the City operated took place.
The process leading up to the 2011 change in the procedure bylaw can be seen in the records of council minutes, in the months prior to the new bylaw being implemented. The new bylaw passed with unanimous consent from all members of council on the day it was introduced in the chamber, passing first, second and third readings on September 26, 2011.
Prior to that day’s meeting of council, a special committee of the whole meeting was held on September 10, 2011, during which the sole item of discussion was the proposed procedure bylaw.
The record of the meeting states Mayor Mulligan spoke to those present about the history of the City’s procedure bylaw, along with an overview of what the new procedure was aimed at achieving. He also made a note that the municipal government is required to have all meetings of council open to the public, and that any information discussed or presented in those meetings becomes a matter of public record.
The record further states that both the council members and members of the municipal administration had the opportunity to request clarification on any point within the bylaw, and that all requested clarifications were answered satisfactorily.
In the mayor’s report from September 26, 2011, it was said that the move would lead to a new level of transparency and openness.
Since the procedure bylaw changes, the financial state of the city has only been released on a quarterly basis, and the exact expenses incurred by members of council and the municipal administration have not been readily available to the public.
Current Lloydminster city councillor Ken Baker had experience with the previous system of accounts payable during his time as mayor of the community, and spoke with 106.1 The Goat on the topic.
According to Baker, the accounts payables lists would be displayed on the projection screen in the city council chambers, and open to review from the public.
“Administration had a system set up, that exposed every invoice, and was made available on the overhead in the council chamber,” said Baker.
“For any further details, if any council member wanted more details they could ask for that detail, and they were all posted every two weeks at our council meeting, and they were distributed with the council package. You could ask question about any one of those line items, or expense vouchers, that were created.”
Baker also said members of the public would be able to see the exact details of the expenses.
“They (the accounts payable) would tell you exactly if we bought two tires, or we bought a piece of hose, or a truck,” said Baker.
“It was totally exposed, and the public (was) made aware. At any meeting, they could get that detail right on the screen.”
Baker was not in the municipal government when the changes were made back in 2010, but did provide details on the way the accounts payable documents are shown to council currently. The current practice, described by Baker, is the presentation of accounts payable documents to council at “information meetings” held prior to the public council sessions.
Baker also said he believes it would be important for the public to be able to easily view the expenses of the city government.
“I don’t know the best way to do it, because I realize technology is changing, but if you’re going to have them on the website you better be able to find them, not buried in some in-depth hole in the system where it’s hard to find,” said Baker.
“I think it’s important, that the public should be able to go and look at that information if they wish, and if they have question on certain line items, or certain expenditures, they should be able to request some explanation of what it’s for.”
The former city manager of Lloydminster, Roger Brekko, was present when the initial process of changes began to be made to the municipal government, and said there had been no major changes made while he was still with the City.
“There was discussion of making some changes, but I think, certainly from the administration that’s there, that included everybody, we were accustomed to providing a lot of information to the public, and providing information when it was requested,” said Brekko.
“That was administration’s position.”
Brekko said if residents of the community had questions, they could get them answered by the government, and said the return of the accounts payable to public view would be a positive move.
“It’s very much part of the public process, and in all honesty, once it’s available there’s no issue, unless there’s somebody seen to do an awful lot of traveling, and that’s the only accountable way of managing it,” said Brekko.
“That keeps people, not on their toes, but it keeps people very open about what they’re doing.”
Brekko also said the committee system helped to keep both council and members of the public informed, and viewed the end of the system as the “bigger picture”.
“When people are asked to make decisions, and they’re not allowed time to think about it in advance, and I know a committee system, you’ve got to work to stay on the committee system, but I think that is when other people, other aldermen, can ask questions,” said Brekko.
“If you’re on that particular committee, you will know the detail, but the alderman that’s not, can ask you. That forces more teamwork on the elected people’s part, forces more teamwork on the administrative part, because they know they have to do a job when they provide answers.”
106.1 The Goat also sat down with current Deputy City Manager Kirk Morrison on August 23 for comment on this story. When asked for clarification on how the municipal government currently handles expense tracking, Morrison said work is underway to put individual expense tracking in place, and the plan is to include that information with the annual disclosures of City salaries.
“We don’t have a mechanism or tracking tool where we can pull that information and provide that level of accounting, and one of the commitments that we’ve made through our commitment to being transparent, enhance our transparency and enhance our accountability, is to put that mechanism in place,” said Morrison.
“We’re providing tracking for mayor, council, and senior administration, and include that information as part of our annual financial report.”
When asked for more detail on the system in the works, Morrison said the tracking would be done using new software.
“We’re working on a new financial hub, new software that will enable us to better track all of our current expenses, and do so in an efficient way,” said Morrison.
“Certainly, we were able to modify our existing program in order to meet some of those travel and meal expense related items for the purposes of the commitment that we have already made. So I don’t want to paint the picture that we can’t do that, without the new tool. The new tool will enhance our ability to track, and enhance our ability to make sure that we are compliant with privacy legislation, when we’re doing reporting of financial records.”
Lloydminster mayor Rob Saunders was also reached for comment on the subject. According to him, council had thought the presence of the accounts payables during their meetings a redundant item.
“That’s a little while back, but from what I remember, at that time, we understood that we were really operating from a municipal corporate governance model, and the accounts payable, already being paid, we did not think that they should be redundant and brought back to council for council approval,” said Saunders.
“A lot of times, when payables were in council, people were re-hashing how much a set of tires were, and this and that, why do we buy them from here or there, which is truly an administrative and operational job based on our strategic planning, our budgeting process, and our performance objectives.”
Saunders said council still views the payables documents on a monthly basis, and the public can still access the information. As for the practice of uploading the payables documents online, Saunders said he would leave it up to city administration to bring forward, and council to review.
“I would like to see justification,” said Saunders.
“We have so much upload of information, on a regular basis, and we have a lot of information that comes to us. As long as we (council) get to view it, as long as it is accessible by the public, I think that satisfies the needs.”
The information released by the City has been sent to the offices of 106.1 The Goat in printed copies.
Published on August 29, 2016.