Investor-funded trips to be decided case by case
Niagara Falls city hall. (RAY SPITERI/NIAGARA FALLS REVIEW/POSTMEDIA NEWS FILE PHOTO)
One councillor suggested the city create a council-wide policy for handling foreign investment trips.
Another suggested the city form a subcommittee that would discuss such business missions.
But in the end, council decided to deal with investor-funded trips for the mayor and senior staff on a case-by-case basis.
Council directed staff to investigate and report back on how other municipalities approach business missions requested and paid for by foreign investors.
The issue came up after Mayor Jim Diodati, city chief administrative officer Ken Todd and director of business development travelled to Romania in October at the expense of a private-sector investment/development group.
Diodati and senior staff were invited by the group who were confidentially exploring various jurisdictions in Ontario and the United States as a potential location for their project.
The group wanted the Falls officials to get a better appreciation of the size and scope of the project being contemplated.
During the past six years, Diodati and senior staff have travelled on similar business missions, twice to China and once to India and Dubai at the investors/developers request, with expenses covered by the investment group.
It has led some to question whether taking all-expense paid trips abroad is the right way to handle such opportunities, or if it may create a real, or perceived, bias in future decision making.
During the previous trips, Diodati informed council of the invitation and offer to cover expenses.
But with the Romania excursion, the trip request was extended while Diodati was away on holidays and he wasn’t able to inform council in advance.
On Tuesday night, Coun. Kim Craitor suggested council create a policy that would apply to not just travel for senior staff and the mayor, but also for individual councillors.
Craitor also said he does not believe elected officials “should ever have a paid trip by anyone.
“I believe it should come from the municipality … if the council decides that there’s a benefit for (taking the trip).”
He said council should also enact a process that vets travel requests to ensure the public’s trust, so that “nobody can … suggest that you did it for some inappropriate reason.”
Coun. Joyce Morocco suggested council form a subcommittee which would review and bring forward trip recommendations.
“I sometimes think that we don’t do enough international travel,” she said.
“I’m not here to say that I want to micromanage what my mayor, who’s been elected by the constituents to do the job he’s supposed to do. But at the same time I understand that we’re all looking for transparency.”
Morocco said she was “not too sure” she’s in favour of taxpayers funding for all international business trips.
She pointed to several Canadian municipalities where private investors invite and pay for the mayor and senior staff to travel to their respective countries to learn more about certain development proposals.
In its report, staff reached out to a number of municipalities of varying sizes across the country to understand how they approached investor-funded trips.
The survey of municipalities concluded each community treats investor-funded business trips differently with some utilizing public funds while others have private entities cover the expenses.
Coun. Wayne Campbell said he does not believe individual council members “should be going anyplace representing the business development interests of our community.
“That job is invested in (the mayor),” he said.
Campbell said he does not think the city should turn down privately funded business trips from foreign governments or business entities.
“If we can take advantage of it, I think we should.”
Campbell also did not support the idea of a subcommittee, adding it would “meet someplace in a back room or downstairs in the basement and it’s not transparent.
“We want this to be transparent. We want it to be upfront.”
Council decided to approve a staff report recommending council deal with investor-funded trips for the mayor and senior staff on a case-by-case basis.
As in the past, staff should be selective in its approach, ensuring the project is viable with a strong possibility of execution, read the report.
The report also stated council may wish to establish a budget for business missions in situations where they feel the circumstances dictate it would be better for the municipality to cover the expenses.
The funds for these trips would be taken from the business development operating budget.
Coun. Wayne Thomson said he supports the idea of having a separate budget with economic development dealing with trips for the mayor and senior staff.
Thomson said he sees “nothing wrong” with foreign-invited and foreign-paid trips, “as long as it’s brought in a report to council and council is informed and the taxpayer doesn’t have to be hit with the additional cost.
“All kinds of municipalities are doing that. I think it’s fair, but the key element is transparency — the council has to know what’s going on.”
Diodati said while he understands some people may have a negative perception about investor/development-funded trips, his influence on council’s ultimate decision is “minimal” because he only votes in the event of a tie or a recorded vote.
“More than likely I won’t vote on the project as it is. No matter what you do, you’ll be up for scrutiny. You’re either spending taxpayer money or taking money from an investor.”