Paradise councillor Alan English has taken his disagreement with a recent decision of council to the provincial government.
During a December 15 meeting of council, council voted to make a significant change to its payment policy.
Council effectively voted to eradicate the Bills for Payment segment of the public council meeting, in which council votes to pay various bills, and establish a monthly cheque register in its place.
“By the time the invoice actually reaches Bills for Payment, council has already approved the expenses sometimes two or three times, either through our annual budget, the tendering process, and awarding the contract,” explained Deputy Mayor Elizabeth Laurie at the time.
The topic was hotly debated in the council chambers, with Councillor Alan English arguing that approving the bills in public was open and transparent, and that to scrap it would be a regressive step.
Other members of council and town staff disagreed.
Director of Corporate Services Terrilynn Smith noted that she felt the new system would be more transparent and explained that invoices would still be available at the request of a member of council.
CAO Lisa Niblock noted that, legally, council cannot hold a bill by the time it reaches Bills for Payment, as by that point council has already agreed to pay the bill.
Council voted in favor of passing the motion, although both English and Councillor Kimberly Street voted against it.
Fast forward to the May 5 council meeting, when Councillor English noted that he had taken his displeasure to the Department of Municipal Affairs.
“I’m addressing a memo we received from the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment with respect to a concern that was forwarded to them on procedural changes with respect to Bills for Payment,” explained English. “This change effectively meant that the Bills for Payment, the invoices, would no longer be approved by council in a public meeting effective January 1, 2020. At that time, I voiced my concerns with respect to this policy change at the meeting. In the public venue, I said that the process would remove the ability of council to approve invoices prior to payment… It appeared to me at that time that the process was in violation of the Municipalities Act… I was concerned to the point that I took the matter further. I wrote a letter to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment.”
He then read some excepts from a letter the department sent in response.
“’Reviewing a cheque register is different then approving an invoice for payment’” read English.
“My other concern with respect to the validity of the new process, the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment said, and this is really important, ‘the new process does not appear to be in compliance with the Municipality Act 1999.’”
“’The intent of the legislation is that the expenditure of public funds be discussed and debated in an open public meeting to ensure transparency for residents,’” he continued to read.
English concluded that, as per the letter, the Department would not be instructing council to reverse the decision, but that he felt personally council should so as to be in compliance with the Act.
“It is in my understanding that the Town obtained a verbal opinion from our lawyers which appeared to diminish the findings of the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment,” he added, noting that he would expect to see a copy of a written legal opinion from the Town’s lawyers.
Mayor Dan Bobbet noted the Town had both verbal and written legal opinions, and chalked it up to a difference of interpretation of the Act.
“As you know, the Act is under review anyway,” noted Bobbett. “Under the advice of our lawyers, basically we proceeded forward, and had a vote of council, and we approved the new process going forward.”
Bobbett added the Town’s legal department would continue to look into it.
English again requested a written legal opinion that the Town was not in violation of the Act.
“Because it’s clear, what the Department is saying, they are saying that we are in violation of the Municipalities Act,” he maintained.
Bobbett said they would get a further legal opinion, and then handed the reigns to CAO Nibolck to explain further.
“We did receive the letter and immediately contacted our legal, and we were in consultation with legal as we came up with the new policy,” said, adding that, depending on how the letter is interpreted, the original Bills for Payment policy was also in violation of the Act, as council only approved invoices over $5,000.
She pointed out that the letter ended by noting the Town ought to refer to its own legal advice, which, she said, is exactly what it was doing, and added that their lawyers felt the new approach was more transparent and open than the old method.
Niblock said she will be responding to the department, and would also send a copy of the legal correspondence regarding the policy to council.
“I’m disappointed to hear that Councillor English was the person who put the complaint forward to Municipal Affairs, because I didn’t get the opportunity to speak to him about that before he did,” Niblock added. “So, I’m surprised to hear that.”
English said he felt like he wasn’t going behind anyone’s back by writing to the department, but felt that his complaints had been dismissed by council.
Bobbett argued that the concerns were not dismissed, and that council voted fairly on the matter.
“Do not say it was dismissed, because you spoke effectively, and when you voted you voted against it, so you had your say, council voted, and we moved on,” said the mayor.
English said that while it was council’s prerogative to vote in favor of the change, it was his prerogative to address the matter to the appropriate authorities.
“And they validated the concerns that I expressed,” said English.
“We have a legal opinion contrary to that, and it’s a matter of interpretation,” countered Bobbett.
The meeting ended on that note, as there were no further comments.