Brampton mayor Susan Fennell was in the hot seat at the city's first mayoral debate Thursday, under fire from fellow candidates about a spending scandal that revealed she broke city spending rules 266 times.
Ms. Fennell joined eight other Brampton mayoral candidates and two candidates running for mayor in Caledon at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archive for a question-and-answer session hosted by the Social Justice Collaborative. The topics focused on social justice but candidates were also asked about how they would ensure accountability and transparency in spending at council.
"Elected officials must be accountable and I believe in transparent policies and I follow them," Ms. Fennell said to some laughter from the crowd of a little fewer than 100 people. She then received cheers when she said she's cut her own expenses by 100 per cent. "I pay my own way."
A forensic audit conducted by Deloitte Canada found last month that Ms. Fennell, mayor for 14 years, inappropriately charged the city $172,608 to expense accounts and a city-issued credit card for hotel upgrades, flight passes and IQ quizzes purchased on her cellphone. The city sent the audit for a criminal investigation to Peel Regional Police, which will decide whether to forward it to the Ontario Provincial Police or investigate it in-house.
Councillor John Sanderson, also running for mayor, reminded the audience it was his motion to launch an audit of all councillors' spending as well as the mayor's.
"It's a real cleansing that we've done at City of Brampton here," Mr. Sanderson said. "It's not been a fun time, this last four years. We've been asking, asking questions about the spending, couldn't get any answers."
But Mr. Sanderson and other councillors were also found by the audit to have breached spending policies, and he couldn't avoid taking some heat as well.
"Residents of Brampton have lost trust in the current administration," candidate Devinder Sangha said, continually bringing his answers to social justice-related questions back to the spending scandal. He said it wasn't enough for councillors to pledge simply to pay back the money that was charged incorrectly.
"These are soft words for stealing," Mr. Sangha said and he questioned members of the audience who applauded Ms. Fennell and Mr. Sanderson. "When you're clapping for these politicians, are you clapping that, 'Great, they got away with it?'"
Former Liberal MPP Linda Jeffrey said she would introduce a lobbyist registry, a gift registry and require all expenses be posted publicly.
"At the end of the day we need to have public trust and certainly, Brampton's received that black eye," she said.
After the event ended, Ms. Fennell defended some of her expenses the audit found breached policies, such as flight passes that cost more than the economy fare but allowed her to cancel and reschedule flights.
"As mayor, I choose to make myself available as much as I can so if somebody says, 'We have a community meeting, we have a community need, mayor will you come?' I look at my schedule, I say, 'Yes I can change my flight,'" she said in an interview.
She said IQ quizzes charged to her cellphone were the result of a Rogers billing error.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article included an error about the number of candidates at the question-and-answer session. This version has been updated