Should elected officials for local government go to conferences? What is the balance between professional development and wasting tax dollars?
There is no question that local governments operate with a great deal of transparency and, with most communities paying their mayors and councillors a low wage and with there being no pension plan or other benefits/perks that are enjoyed by politicians from other levels of government, usually local governments are not attacked for frivolous spending on their elected officials… except occasionally around conferences.
In 2011 at the Federal Municipalities Conference held that year in Halifax, a councillor for the City of Vancouver got in hot water for tweeting about the lobster dinner she was eating and all the “swag” she got (in her defense, lobster is probably cheaper then steak in Halifax and the swag was a cheap umbrella, some pens, and a bit of other promotional junk). Several years later, there was criticism regarding politicians from the Metro Vancouver area staying in hotels in downtown Vancouver during a conference.
From my opinion, perspective and experience, there is a balance between meaningful and important conferences and travel, and those that are lacking in value for the taxpayer. There are hundreds of different little conferences or sessions on everything from economic development, to building sustainable communities, to who knows what else. For one politician, or an entire council, to attend all of these would, in my mind, be too much.
There is one very important conference once a year that I think every local government elected official should attend (if they are able) and that is the annual convention for the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM).
The UBCM convention generally moves between Vancouver, Whistler and Victoria. In addition to a great deal of workshops and clinics and learning opportunities, the convention features discussion and debate on resolutions or position statements, which the executive for UBCM spend the rest of the year trying to work on and stays on file to provide direction in the future.
During the UBCM convention, there is usually the opportunity to meet with provincial cabinet ministers and bring up relevant local topics. The meetings with cabinet ministers are only 15 minutes long and sometimes accomplish nothing, but other times they can be very effective in highlighting an issue or a concern and getting some provincial attention/focus.
Most of the local government politicians from the Columbia Valley will be heading down to Vancouver next week for this year’s UBCM conference.
We are looking forward to representing our communities, learning from best practices across the province, and helping to keep UBCM relevant and useful to local governments in B.C. A few of us are even putting our names forward to be part of the executive of UBCM and do more work with the organization: Director Booth is running for the position of second Vice President, and I am running as a Director at Large.
Gerry Taft is mayor of the District of Invermere and a Regional District of East Kootenay director for the Columbia Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com.