OPINION: Conferences can be worthwhile, but remember who elected you

“We are the ones who elected him, and he needs to be accountable to us,” Gord Turner.

Recently, we’ve been hearing Castlegar taxpayers questioning the need for councillors and the mayor to travel to conferences outside the city. Some people are feeling that the money spent going to these conferences is a waste and should be focused on local projects.

While there may be some truth in such attitudes, clearly those who are elected to council are lay-people who need to broaden their backgrounds. They need to learn what other councils are doing, and they can do so at a conference as they mix with councillors and staff from around the country.

I have never felt that staying completely local was healthy — that councillors and those in key positions need to know more. How are other cities dealing with their waste? What water issues could crop up? How do other small airports function and remain profitable? These points and many others can come up in workshop form or conference fieldtrips or merely in discussions.

Conferences also give council and the mayor opportunities to showcase our city. That can be done in presentations as happened when our council featured Sculpturewalk at one conference in Vancouver.

As a councillor at that time, I was asked questions for the rest of the conference about our outdoor art program — how it was done and how we could afford it. Some big-city councillors said they were coming to Castlegar to view the 32 sculptures and how they’ve enhanced the city environment.

It’s important that councillors and the mayor upon return to Castlegar lay out what they’ve learned and what changes they are pursuing because of their new information. That’s the only way these trips become accountable in terms of the public. If a councillor reports on a new method of snow removal she has seen at a conference, we as the general public get to know about that too.

Not only is the councillor or mayor showing the value of things learned while at a conference, but he or she is ultimately explaining these things for the taxpaying public. Council meetings are televised, and, believe it or not, many people get their council information from watching this channel every two weeks. In addition, there are newspaper and radio reporters at council meetings, and when they report oncouncil events, we as taxpayers get to know a bit more about events such as conference proceedings.

Refusing to share information gleaned from conference proceedings at a council meeting means that we as homeowners don’t get to know some of what that individual learned. In effect, a refusal by anyone on council is a denial of the taxpayer’s right to know. A refusal to divulge at council meetings as in the mayor’s recent statements is an abdication of his role. We are the ones who elected him, and he needs to be accountable to us.

To use an excuse that the Regional District of Central Kootenay paid his way and that he will only report to them is neither here nor there. The regional district did not elect him — we did. And his position there as a director is only an appointment, so he is not beholden to them.

That the regional district paid his way to the FCM conference is just another way for the City of Castlegar to save one airfare and conference fee — nothing more. The city pays the regional district a large sum of money for operation each year, and to get the mayor’s way paid to a conference is simply a way to get a tiny bit of that money back. It has nothing to do with the mayor’s obligation to the Castlegar taxpayers who elected him.

As it turned out, when the mayor recently reported on his conference itinerary to the regional district, it seemed as if he had nothing to report. He went to the conference but didn’t attend much. Why he couldn’t have reported those few tidbits of marginal conference attendance to his own council (and thus his taxpayers) is hard to imagine. Perhaps he was afraid to say he was on holiday.

Gord Turner was a Castlegar city councillor from 2001-14.

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