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Metro Vancouver's golden handshake has some people seeing red

"It’s just completely everything that I hate about politics," says West Vancouver mayor

The Lower Mainland’s municipal leaders are taking some heat after voting themselves a surprise golden handshake.

On Friday last week, the Metro Vancouver board voted to give themselves a 15 per cent raise, and as part of the same motion create a “retirement allowance” giving outgoing directors a lump sum payment of $1,100 per year they have served retroactive to 2007.

Voting against it were District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton, West Vancouver’s acting mayor Mary-Ann Booth, Burnaby's Colleen Jordan and Sav Dhaliwal, Coquitlam's Brent Asmundson and Terry O’Neill, Bowen Island's Maureen Nicholson and Area A director Maria Harris.

The Vancouver Sun quotes board vice-chairman Raymond Louie, a Vancouver councillor, voting in favour, saying that board members should be appropriately compensated for the time they spend away from their communities to discuss regional matters.

Metro staff say the cost of the retirement allowance will be approximately $498,000 upfront with an annual financial impact at approximately $62,500. Because Walton and City of North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto have multiple terms in office and have both announced they won’t be running again, they will be entitled to $12,000 each.

The 15 per cent bump in the stipend is meant to offset a change in the last federal budget, which stripped away a tax writeoff for elected council members’ salaries to cover the cost of expenses. Under the decades-old tax break, council members did not pay taxes on a third of their income.

Dermod Travis, executive director of the watchdog group Integrity B.C., said elected officials’ remuneration should be set by an independent body.

“I think that it’s entirely inappropriate for elected officials to be setting their own pay scale,” he said. “The idea that they would do it retroactive back to 2007 is a complete affront to taxpayers in Metro Vancouver – probably unheard of in most jurisdictions in Canada.”

In an interview, Walton said, though it was a controversial vote, it is not a “good-guy, bad-guy” story as there is great disparity in how council members are compensated around Metro Vancouver. “People responded to it quite differently. I, at this point, thought there should have been perhaps some broader discussion and I was concerned about the process but I really don’t want to comment beyond that,” he said. “I can argue both sides of this, quite frankly. I just happened to vote no.”

West Vancouver Mayor Mike Smith, who did not attend the meeting, took a less nuanced position, saying it was “blatant pork barrelling” and “a total disgrace.”

Smith sent Booth in his place because, when he reviewed the Metro board agenda before taking off for Hawaii for Spring Break, there was no mention of remuneration or a retirement allowance.

“Honestly, if I’d been there, they would have had to call the riot police. It’s just completely everything that I hate about politics where these people piously talk about how they’re all doing this not for their own advantage, you understand, but to serve the public. Yet they stick their nose so deep in the trough it just makes you sick,” he said. “They’ve been politicians too long. They’ve forgotten how hard people work to pay their taxes.”

Smith also called the bump in remuneration “a crock,” saying directors are already paid by their own municipalities and that they have been getting expenses reimbursed and tax writeoffs for years.

“I’ve been to some of these Metro meetings and they last half an hour and you get $375 or whatever it is,” he said.

Smith said he plans to give his fellow mayors an earful when he returns from vacation and “shame” them into revisiting the decision at the next Metro board meeting.

Coquitlam Coun. Terry O’Neill, who voted against the amendment, said the changes caught him off guard. The item was a late addition to the agenda and he said he only heard about it the night before the vote.

“It was very easy for me to say no to this,” he told Tri-City News. “This is not right.”

O’Neill, who as an alternate Metro board member was filling in for Mayor Richard Stewart, who is away on holiday, said the retroactive payment was particularly disconcerting.

“It is something you might want to debate going forward but what really stuck in my craw was that it goes all the way back to 2007,” he said.

Burnaby councillor Sav Dhaliwal, who voted in favour of the pay increase but against the retirement allowance, told Burnaby Now that being a local elected politician "is a lot of work, and I believe it shouldn’t just be for retired people the way it is now. Most of the people on my council are retired because they generally can live with the kind of wages that the councillors get.

“If you want to attract some younger, professional people who are interested in managing a city budget, which is a $550 million annual budget (better compensation is needed)... It’s important to attract some men and women to local governments who can make a living and raise a family on a salary that they don’t have to worry about doing a second job. It takes away from people’s ability to put in 100 per cent.”

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, who, at 37 years, is the longest-serving member of the Metro Vancouver board, defended the decision to implement retirement allowances.

He said that as a mayor of a small community, he does not receive the benefits of bigger-city councils, such as medical premiums and gas allowances. Drew added that he has all the same responsibilities and must attend the same number of meetings as a representative of a larger municipality but the pay is significantly lower.

“People really have no idea of the time commitment for elected officials,” he told TriCity News. “Even my own councillors don’t appreciate how much time it takes as a mayor… The process is as every bit demanding without any sort of the recognition of the time involved.”

With files from Gary McKenna of TriCity News and Grant Granger of Burnaby Now.

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