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$100K ‘allowance’ for ex-mayor’s transition to Metro Vancouver flagged by councillors

Click to play video: 'Metro Vancouver wastewater cost overruns ‘review’ surprises finance committee'
Metro Vancouver wastewater cost overruns ‘review’ surprises finance committee
WATCH: The announcement that Metro Vancouver would launch an 'independent review' of its massive wastewater plant cost overruns took a lot of people by surprise, including the members of its own finance committee. Catherine Urquhart reports – Jun 19, 2024

City councillors in New Westminster, B.C., are ringing the alarm about a “transition allowance” payment to former mayor Jonathan Cote.

A recent financial statement from the city revealed that Cote received $103,443 from New Westminster taxpayers after he left civic politics and took a job at Metro Vancouver.

New West Progressive Coun. Paul Minhas said the transition allowance, something his party’s councillors tried to reform last year, is there to assist elected officials in other employment.

Minhas said Cote was able to find new employment at Metro Vancouver in less than two months, pocketing more than $100,000 in the process.

Click to play video: 'Metro Vancouver calls independent review into North Shore wastewater plant overruns'
Metro Vancouver calls independent review into North Shore wastewater plant overruns

Cote was hired as Metro Vancouver’s deputy general manager with regional planning and housing development.

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“We tried to reform this pricey transition allowance policy last year, but the Community First politicians at city hall voted it down,” Minhas said.

“Our local taxpayers are dealing with inflation and a cumulative property tax increase of 14 per cent over the past two years, so this golden parachute is hard for taxpayers to have to stomach when you realize that our former mayor got a massive transition allowance as he was headed to the high-paying job at Metro Vancouver.”

New West Progressive councillors Daniel Fontaine and Minhas looked to change the rules around the transition allowance to limit how much a former politician could receive in the event they are able to find employment.

“This is a common practice found in the private sector whereby the continuance of salary or severance pay is adjusted to reflect the employment status of an individual during the transition period,” Minhas said.

“In voting against the motion, it was reported that Johnstone stated, in part, ‘The separation allowance is a benefit that elected government officials receive’ and it ‘should be an important part of every compensation package.’”

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Also in the financial statement, it was revealed Cote was paid more than $209,407 in 2023. In total, Cote received more than $315,000 last year.

Click to play video: 'B.C. premier encourages Metro Vancouver audit'
B.C. premier encourages Metro Vancouver audit

On Tuesday, Metro Vancouver said it is launching an independent review of the wastewater treatment plant, even though it said a day before that it had no plans to take such action. The announcement was made by George Harvie, Delta’s mayor and chair of Metro Vancouver’s board of directors.

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“We take these concerns seriously and as such, as the Chair of the Board, I am initiating an independent review of the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant Program costs,” outgoing Mero Vancouver board chair George Harvie wrote in a release Tuesday.

Harvie was voted off the Metro Vancouver board by Delta city councillors.

His last day on the board will be June 30.

Harvie’s travel expenses while part of the board have come into question. His released expenses for the first few months of 2024 have prompted outrage and questions about accountability at Metro Vancouver.

Despite his removal from the Metro Vancouver board, Harvie was permitted to stay on until July 1 so he could attend a conference in Amsterdam about diking systems. Harvie did not end up going on the trip to Amsterdam, but several other Metro Vancouver officials did.

Data from Metro Vancouver shows Harvie has already incurred more than $32,000 in expenses this year. He claimed more than $21,000 for a flight to Asia plus $2,700 for accommodation and per diems.

The announcement of an independent review also comes one day after B.C. Premier David Eby called for an independent audit of Metro Vancouver.

Eby even hinted that if the authority cannot ensure financial accountability, the province may step in.

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Click to play video: 'Metro Vancouver’s top bureaucrat makes more than $700K a year'
Metro Vancouver’s top bureaucrat makes more than $700K a year

Metro Vancouver said the scope and details of the review still need to be determined.

The plant was initially expected to be finished by 2020, at a cost of $700 million. The budget has since swelled to nearly $4 billion and the completion date has been pushed to at least 2030.

To pay for the project, Metro Vancouver voted to divide the costs across the region, with North Shore homeowners bearing the brunt with an extra $590 per year on their utility bills for the next 30 years.

Last week, seven city councillors from across Metro Vancouver called for auditor general Michael Pickup to investigate the cost overruns.

“Part of today is really, sadly … damage control. This should have come weeks, if not months ago. They’ve gone into this kicking and screaming,” Fontaine said.

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About two weeks ago, four Lower Mainland city councillors, including Fontaine, said Metro Vancouver’s board members should be elected.

In its current model, Metro Vancouver’s 41 board members are appointed, something councillors Linda Annis of Surrey, Fontaine of New Westminster, Kash Heed of Richmond and Ahmed Yousef of Maple Ridge said need to change.

The four said voters should decide who the board members are, and Metro Vancouver currently lacks transparency.

“The current governance model is clearly not working and the provincial government should undertake a full review that includes giving taxpayers the chance to elect board members and hold them accountable, the same way they hold mayors, councillors and MLAs accountable,” Linda Annis said.

Metro Vancouver is a federation of 21 municipalities, one electoral area and one treaty First Nation.

Click to play video: 'Should Metro Vancouver board members be elected?'
Should Metro Vancouver board members be elected?

— with files from Lasia Kretzel, Catherine Urquhart

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