A council meeting in Brampton, Ont., descended into a raucous session of finger-pointing Wednesday after a scathing audit report revealed Mayor Susan Fennell had broken city spending rules 266 times and could not provide auditors with key documents on another 72 occasions.
An expense scandal had been simmering since last fall, but it wasn’t until a four-month audit was completed this week by Deloitte Canada that the extent of the mayor’s breaches of the city’s spending policy were revealed, highlighting a high level of dysfunction in Canada’s ninth-largest city.
In just a few decades, Brampton has expanded from a modest collection of subdivisions and farms into a diverse city of nearly 600,000 – a change driven largely by mass immigration. But the growth of its local government has not kept pace with its population, which means the mechanisms of oversight that most large cities have are not in place in Brampton. This integrity gap has resulted in an expense scandal that has hung over the mayor and council for the better part of the last year – an election year.
Ms. Fennell, who has served as mayor for 14 years, inappropriately charged $172,608 to expense accounts and a city-issued credit card for hotel upgrades, flight passes and even IQ quizzes purchased on her cellphone, according to a report by Deloitte Canada. During a heated council meeting Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Fennell’s colleagues called for a criminal investigation into her spending, pointing out that the mayor had charged $149,955 worth of questionable expenses to her business and office accounts, but there was not enough paperwork available for Deloitte to determine if those charges breached council’s code of conduct.
“We certainly didn’t sit around this table and approve first-class travel and luxury hotel rooms,” said Elaine Moore, one of the mayor’s most vocal opponents on council. “I think what we have is an attitude of complete disregard for taxpayers’ dollars.” Other members of council were found to have breached city expense policy by improperly charging $46,000 worth of transactions to corporate credit cards and expense accounts.
For the past three years, there have been no checks and balances in place when it comes to council’s spending, which is why Ms. Fennell’s questionable claims were not identified until last fall, when a local media outlet filed several freedom-of-information requests to obtain all of council’s expense reports. In February, 2011, councillors voted 7 to 2 to adopt a new expense policy that would allow members to approve their own claims – something the city’s finance department had previously looked after. It’s a move that’s baffled observers.
“There’s no corporation in our country that doesn’t have an oversight function in terms of expenses – recording them, reviewing them and approving them,” said Susan Crawford, chair of Brampton’s board of trade. “We’re at that point now where we look back and think if that had been in place in the first place, a lot of this could have been avoided.”
At Wednesday’s council meeting, as the audit report was being discussed, the mayor was hardly contrite. When Ms. Moore raised the issue of bringing the report to the police, Ms. Fennell replied, “Do you want to stick to the OPP [Ontario Provincial Police] or do you want to double-check the proper protocol with Peel, OPP, RCMP, CSIS, the army?”
A motion later moved by Ms. Moore specified that Peel Regional Police shouldn’t be asked to look into whether any of the improper expenses constituted fraud or broke laws because the mayor sits on the force’s board.
Ms. Fennell also took shots at the media and her political opponents. “I accept full responsibility, good and bad, but those who have made baseless, inaccurate and unfair allegations for months need to also take responsibility too because they were all found to be baseless,” Ms. Fennell said.
While auditors cleared the mayor and her staff of inappropriately using resources to support the Mayor’s Gala, the Mayor’s Golf Classic, the Community Spirit Team and other initiatives, they provided a much longer list of the ways in which Ms. Fennell and her staff had breached the city’s code of conduct repeatedly during her last term in office. She spent most lavishly on airfare passes during the past two terms, totalling $128,000. The mayor and her staff preferred these passes over single tickets, even though the cost was sometimes more than 200 per cent more for a flight to the same destination. Some of the passes expired before they could be used, which cost the city $4,685.
In other cases, the mayor and her staff charged a range of personal expenses to their city-issued credit cards, including purchases from the liquor store, iPad apps and restaurant meals in Miami, where the mayor owns property. While most charges were repaid within the month, city policy forbids use of the credit cards for non-business purposes.
Ms. Crawford said she was most surprised by how much of the mayor’s and councillors’ spending could not be substantiated. “It’s probably the most alarming aspect of the report, other than the clear breaches, that we have so many of these expenses that people can’t seem to justify or don’t have enough information about.”
In the fall, Ms. Fennell faced much scrutiny for having a limousine company on retainer while also using a city-issued vehicle. Deloitte said there was not enough paperwork to determine if the use of the limousine service, which cost between $47,000 and $49,000 annually from 2010 to 2013, was in violation of the city’s spending policy.
During Wednesday’s meeting, a lawyer consulted by the city said it was not permissible for Ms. Fennell to quietly request the city to reduce her salary in 2013 after revelations she was the highest paid mayor in Canada. Ms. Fennell defended that decision and told council her own lawyer told her it was fine.
After the city’s Chief Administrative Officer John Corbett said the best way to resolve the issue would be to revisit a bylaw that could see all councillors’ pay reduced, council voted to accept Ms. Fennell’s pay cut for this year instead of reopening the issue.
But Mr. Sprovieri said he was more concerned that the mayor went behind council’s back to ask staff to reduce her salary, even though it was against the rules.
“How can I know that you have not pressured or influenced members of staff to do other things?” he said. “This is really a serious matter when the mayor uses her influence, her authority, her position to go to a staff member and ask them to break the rules.”
While the next steps the city and police will take are yet unknown, in the fall, the mayor and councillors will face the court of public opinion.
“I was angry over a year ago. This just kind of confirmed, made a little more concrete, details out of it,” said Brampton resident and business owner Sushil Tailor. He said this October will be his family’s first time voting in a municipal election.
“They’re going to vote to boot out Susan Fennell,” he said.
Average flight costs
The mayor and her staff used flight passes, which were found to be much more expensive than the economy fare tickets purchased by councillors and their staff.