In the throes of the 2010 municipal election, then-mayoral candidate Shari Decter Hirst and several candidates for council built their campaigns around the idea of having a more open, accessible and accountable municipal government.
But in the cause of open data and accountability, the city administration and our city council dropped the ball this week when it was decided that the City of Brandon’s 2011 Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Report would be only made available to the public if citizens came down to city hall in person and requested a copy. That’s exactly what the Sun did earlier this week.
What we received upon our request was a seven-page photocopied document — no electronic copies are available — that lists all the names of those employees who received compensation from the city in excess of $50,000.
City hall has also refused to put a copy of the audited results on its website and instead seems to hope that officials will be able to explain the numbers to those who come and ask for them. To our minds, it’s rather patronizing to assume that Brandonites are incapable of understanding the spreadsheet.
Just as a point of reference, the City of Winnipeg has put its 2011 compensation disclosure report on its website, winnipeg.ca, in a PDF form. Just like the Brandon version, it includes a message from the company that created the report noting that the information has been prepared in accordance with the provisions of The Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act. No other explanation needed.
While that annoys us, we have still other concerns about the data — or rather, the data that is missing.
The Brandon report breaks down the compensation of city employees and city councillors into regular earnings, overtime earnings and total earnings, which is a change from previous disclosure reports that only listed the total compensation for employees earning beyond the $50,000 mark.
As the Sun reported on Thursday, overtime earnings in the 2011 audit include payouts made as a result of overtime accrued during the one-in-300-year flood that hit Brandon in 2011.
City workers made thousands of dollars in overtime — in some cases tens of thousands — which pushed dozens of employees beyond the $50,000 mark for the first time. However, the audit does not specifically break down overtime earned during the flood and other overtime earnings. Overtime paid to out-of-scope employees would all be flood-related, but the overtime paid to unionized employees would include non-flood overtime.
Brandon’s human resources director, Vicki Fifi, told the Sun that there was no way to differentiate between flood and non-flood overtime pay out. She also noted that the city was under “no obligation” to report the overtime pay out, though she added that with all the flood overtime pay out that it would really skew the numbers “if we didn’t do something to help explain why the numbers were radically different from different years.”
So it was simply to make the books look good — not because of openness and accountability, or any sense of moral obligation — that employee overtime was made public? This is despite the fact that the Sun has previously requested flood-related overtime data from the city.
In our opinion, members of the public have a right to know how their municipality is spending tax dollars, especially when it comes to public employee salaries and overtime costs.
At the same time, we simply don’t find it credible for city officials to state that flood-related overtime cannot be separated from other overtime dollars, especially when officials have previously said that much of the $5.3-million flood-fighting bill was expected to be picked up by the higher levels of government through the Disaster Financial Assistance program.
As we have previously reported, the DFA program, which is actually federal money flowed through provincial channels, covers costs that are above and beyond normal city efforts in a flood situation — things like sandbagging, equipment rental, cleanup costs and yes, staff overtime. All of these need to be properly accounted for before cash can flow.
If the city can provide the feds with a breakdown of overtime costs, we’ll expect it to be released to the public as well.
Maybe it can be uploaded to the city’s vaunted Open Government site, at brandon.ca/open-gov. That would certainly go a long way towards the appearance of accountability.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 29, 2012