Taxpayer-funded, two-drink maximum gets nod from Thompson-Nicola Regional Board

There was much debate over how many drinks and what types of alcohol should be funded by taxpayers

  • Jul. 28, 2020 9:50 a.m.

-Kamloops This Week

Should taxpayers pay for politicians and staff to drink alcohol while doing business on their behalf?

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District board has directed staff to amend its hospitality policy to include a new two-drink maximum clause for events such as a dinner the regional district hosts during the annual Union of BC Municipalities conference. The policy amendments will also strip the regional district CAO’s powers in approving events at which taxpayer-funded drinking occurs. The changes come after the regional district’s former CAO, Sukh Gill, left suddenly in February with a sizeable severance package — more than half a million dollars — under murky circumstances, on which the regional district has said it will not comment.

At the July 16 meeting, the regional district board was asked to provide direction to staff to amend its hospitality policy after two policies — one concerning the Union of BC Municipalities dinner and another dealing with TNRD-hosted events in general — were found to be inconsistent, staff said.

Proposed amendments included adding a clause stipulating costs of guests or partners of invitees to TNRD-hosted events be the responsibility of the invitee. Sun Peaks Mayor Al Raine, however, said the regional district should have flexibility when hosting VIP dignitaries. TNRD board chair Ken Gillis agreed, detailing a situation wherein the TNRD invited a MLA and their partner to attend a TNRD-hosted event.

“I would be kind of embarrassed about asking her [MLA] to reach into her purse to pay for her husband,” Gillis said. “I was rather hoping that we would have a bit of flexibility for the chair or the vice-chair to deal with situations like that and say, ‘Of course, by all means, bring your husband.’”

The board voted to allow that discretion, with only Area E (Bonaparte Plateau) director Sally Watson opposed. Essentially, it will mean the TNRD’s top politicians (currently Gillis and vice-chair Bill Kershaw) will be able to invite people like local MLAs and their spouses to a TNRD event, with costs paid for with regional district dollars. Directors’ partners are excluded.

Meanwhile, the second proposed amendment included restricting alcohol to beer and wine for all events, including the UBCM dinner, with approval of such events at the discretion of the board chair or vice-chair, not the CAO, as is currently included in the policy. A report to the board stated: “The approval of board-sanctioned events is not the purview of the CAO’s responsibilities and should be entirely within the jurisdiction of the chair and the vice-chair.”

The proposal sparked lengthy debate by the board over how many drinks and what types of acohol should be funded by taxpayers — a heated exchange that apparently transcended the meeting and was included in previous email exchanges behind the scenes.

“Has anybody asked their taxpayers if they’d like to pay for our booze?” Watson asked the board. “I know I did. I did a casual survey to ask the taxpayers if they thought that we should be paying for our drinks at dinners with their money and I got a resounding, ‘No.’ I was told by specific taxpayers that if they’d like to buy me a drink, they will. But they don’t think it should be done with our taxes. I can’t believe we’re considering this, at this time, that, ‘Oh, we’re all having a good time, let’s just keep pouring.’”

Area P (Rivers and the Peaks) director Mel Rothenburger made a substitute motion, calling for alcohol at TNRD-hosted events to be offered by cash bar only. He told KTW he put forward the motion because he opposes the idea of taxpayers footing the bill for drinks consumed by directors.

“I think it’s just not the right practise to be supporting,” Rothenburger said. “I think it would be much better for directors to pay for their own drinks, if you choose to drink at a TNRD event.”

Asked how often it happens, Rothenburger said not very often, with the main event the UBCM dinner each year. The chair apparently also hosted a Christmas reception last year, Rothenburger said, noting he did not attend, as well as the other occasional reception.

Rothenburger’s motion failed — but the decision split the board, prompting request by Rothenburger for a poll of the votes — in which each of the 26 directors would be required to state out loud how they voted. One by one, directors in favour of the motion began requesting their vote be documented in the meeting minutes, a seeming display of solidarity that began with Kamloops Coun. Mike O’Reilly.

“In favour,” O’Reilly said. “I’d like my vote recorded, please.”

“Pardon?” TNRD chair Gillis asked.

“I said, I’d like my vote recorded, please,” O’Reilly repeated.

Other directors followed suit, with Watson, Kamloops Coun. Kathy Sinclair, Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell and Kamloops Coun. Dale Bass among those echoing O’Reilly’s request.

Rothenburger’s motion to have cash bars only failed by a vote of 15-11, with three each on Kamloops council in favour and opposed.

Opposed to the cash bar motion were Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian and councillors Dieter Dudy and Bill Sarai (attending as an alternate for Coun. Arjun Singh), along with chair Gillis, vice-chair Kershaw, Merritt Mayor Linda Brown, Area J (Copper Desert Country) director Ronaye Elliott, Area N (Nicola Valley South) director Herb Graham, Area M (Nicola Valley North) director David Laird, Area I (Blue Sky Country) director Steven Rice, Area A (Wells Country) director Carol Schaffer, Logan Lake Mayor Robin Smith, Barriere director Ward Stamer, Clinton Mayor Susan Swan and Area B (Thompson Headwaters) director Stephen Quinn.

Smith said when she goes out in her personal life, she does not spend $9-plus on alcoholic beverages. However, at events like UBCM, she said it happens “fairly often.” Smith said while taxpayers are picking up the tab, it pales in comparison to the cost of the entire UBCM event, arguing the benefits outweigh the costs.

“It’s not always about the drinking,” Smith said. “It’s about the networking and the socializing and the getting to know people. Sometimes that occurs and sometimes it’s over a drink. I think it’s not always unreasonable.”

In favour of Rothenburger’s cash bar motion were Kamloops councillors Bass, O’Reilly and Sinclair, Clearwater Mayor Blackwell, Chase director Rod Crowe, Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman, Sun Peaks Mayor Raine, Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden, director Rothenburger, Cache Creek Mayor Santo Talarico and director Watson.

Another proposed policy amendment included adding the word “moderate” to describe the quantify of alcohol allowed to be consumed. Being that it would be at discretion of the board chair and vice-chair, Bass asked Gillis how he would describe “moderate.”

“I don’t know how to answer that question, director Bass,” Gillis responded.

Eventually, the board approved a two-drink maximum clause, with discretion by the chair and vice-chair. It means directors and staff can have two taxpayer-funded alcoholic beverages at events, including the UBCM dinner, approved at the discretion of the board chair or vice-chair only, and no longer by the CAO.

Hospitality policy details

The hospitality policy applies to all board members and TNRD staff who incur hospitality expenses while conducting regional district business.

“Hospitality” refers to:

  • hosting board members, representatives from other local, provincial or federal governments, First Nations, staff, constituents and/or volunteers for gatherings, receptions, ceremonies, conferences, performances or other group functions that include hosting dignitaries;
  • engaging in official public matters with representatives from other governments, business, industry/labour leaders or other community leaders;
  • sponsoring conferences, hosting ceremonies/recognition events or other authorized official functions, as approved by the the chair or vice-chair.

While the majority of hospitality events will not include substances of any kind, in the context of hospitality for reasons of diplomacy, protocol, courtesy, business development, promotion or advocacy, alcohol may be offered in limited circumstances. Previously, such events were approved at the discretion of the chair or CAO. Now, it will be limited to the chair and vice-char.

City of Kamloops has no policy on staff, politicians buying booze on taxpayers’ dime

Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian said alcohol is provided at a limited number of city events, such as inauguration at the beginning of a new term. The other events are Remembrance Day veterans’ events and Japan sister city delegations from Uji.

No limits are in place at such events, but Christian said the gatherings generally include wine on the table or sometimes drink tickets.

Asked for city policy on alcohol, City of Kamloops corporate services director Kathy Humphrey pointed to policy GGA-20 Alcohol Consumption in Workplace, which notes council must approve if alcohol is being served on city property and the applicable director and chief administrative officer must be aware.

Asked about staff and council being allowed to purchase alcohol with taxpayers’ money, Humphrey said there is no specific policy in place.

“It needs to be approved by the directors and is allowed for specific events,” she said. “We are reviewing this policy, or lack of policy, and will be looking for best practice across the municipal/public sector to develop the policy.”

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