Rick Hansen speaks to delegates at the 2013 Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference

Rick Hansen speaks to delegates at the 2013 Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference

Maple Ridge council takes a pass on Niagara Falls

No one from Maple Ridge council will attend the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference

Maple Ridge council is skipping the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Niagara Falls this year, partly because of public backlash over trips and expenses.

The conference takes place in Niagara Falls, May 30 to June 2, with registration costs ranging between $785 and $920. Keynote speaker is Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau.

Coun. Al Hogarth told colleagues Tuesday he’s not attending because of costs to his business and because of “twisted media reporting” on the topic.

“I don’t like the antics that take place around this whole issue of council spending and how it got twisted.”

It’s not fair to the community or council, he added.

He explained that leaving his realty business to attend conferences means he has to bring in someone to cover for him.

“So I have a double hit.”

Coun. Corisa Bell said earlier she wouldn’t attend the conference in order to remain within expense budget for the term. Her total expense tally for training and conferences is just below the $15,000 allotted to each councillor for their three years in office.

Housing, railway safety, disaster response and the federal 2015 election are all on the FCM agenda.

Bell said attendance at conferences by municipal politicians drops during election years because of pressure from the public.

“I find it disappointing, as well.”

Perhaps councillors shouldn’t have any expense accounts and not attend conferences, she suggested.

Coun. Bob Masse had thought about attending, then decided not to, partly “for reasons that are not dissimilar to what Al was talking about.”

Going to Niagara Falls would have meant time away from his business.

“There’s such an unfortunate level of negativity that’s attached to us doing our job, basically.

“I don’t want to take five days off work [away from his business] and get criticized for doing so.”

Councillors are serving the public.

“If they’re saying, ‘We don’t want you doing that,’ even though I disagree and think it’s an appropriate part of my job – if the majority of comments are saying, ‘We don’t want you doing that,’ it has an effect on your thinking,” Masse said.

Many conference presentations are now available online and there even could be webcasts of them.

But it’s not the same as being there, said Masse.

A significant part of the value of attending is in the conversations before and after the sessions, the networking that allows sharing of knowledge.

Councillors who attend such conferences usually give verbal reports to council when they return, but Masse agrees that perhaps written reports might be considered.

He added that locations chosen for such conferences are also important in order to draw enough interest. He heard of one conference that was cancelled this year. It was planned for Winnipeg during one of the toughest winters in decades.

“They hold them in relatively nice places so people will go to them,” Masse said.

“But that gets misconstrued: ‘Here they go, gallivanting off to these great places again.’”

Mayor Ernie Daykin said Maple Ridge will miss out by not being at the national conference, but not as much as if it skipped the Union of B.C. Municipalities or the Lower Mainland Local Government Association gatherings.

Fellow members of Metro Vancouver will report back.

“It’s been said before, sometimes you miss out on some of that networking. You do get a bit of a sense of what other communities are doing. I think there is a value.”

But he also recognizes attending conferences takes him out of his community for a few days.

When the Union of B.C. Municipalities and Federation of Canadian Municipalities held conventions in Vancouver last year, Daykin attended both events.

But he didn’t stay overnight, sparing accommodation costs and instead opting to commute.

“Personally, it doesn’t feel right, because there are lots of people in the community that do it every day.”

But he added he’s not going to judge other councillors who do stay over.

All councillors but Judy Dueck attended the UBCM convention in Vancouver last September, some staying over, some not.

A review of the expense policy is expected back to council in a few weeks.