Cost of mayor's 'discretionary' fund revealed; FOI documents show Gregor Robertson's staff spent $227,000 on travel, food, consultants over past 2 years

By Sam Cooper, The Province [Vancouver, B.C], 09 Mar 2014

Freelance journalist Stanley Tromp obtained documents for this story through freedom of information law.


While the communications department inside Vancouver City Hall has more than doubled since 2009, Mayor Gregor Robertson is still spending quite a bit on external communications from a little known "discretionary fund."

Robertson spent $227,000 from the fund over the past two years, including about $110,000 on external consulting. Most of the additional spending went to travel, meeting, and dining expenses for Robertson and members of his office who use charge cards linked to the fund, according to documents.

Spending from the mayor's discretionary fund - for which Robertson and his chief of staff Mike Magee have signing authority - is included within "general government" costs, but details are not reported in the city's annual financial statement.

B.C.'s other major city, Surrey, does not have a similar discretionary fund for Mayor Dianne Watts.

NPA Coun. George Affleck will table a motion in council next week to review the spending of mayor and council, and says that if the NPA gains power he would change the mayor's discretionary fund to increase transparency.

The Sunday Province obtained detailed accounting from the Vancouver mayor's fund under freedom of information law. Line items show everything from a handful of $500 Helijet flights to Victoria charged by Magee, to $800 for "red pocket" Chinese New Year gift envelopes, to $1,700 charged by a Robertson aide for a breakfast meeting at Vancouver's Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel. Though the city's internal corporate and political communication staff has grown to more than 22 employees since 2009, documents show that Robertson is contracting out for communications and strategic advice. Exactly what consultants provide and who is contracted is not clearly outlined.

A more detailed picture of Robertson and his staff's spending emerges from documentation of travel and "meeting expenses." In 2012 - when Robertson and his team travelled to events from Paris and London to Singapore and Saskatoon - "travel and training" line items reveal about $34,000 in charges for flights, meals, conference fees, and hotel stays.

When meeting in Vancouver, costs range from $2 coffees to $350 cafe bills and $380 takeouts from "fair trade" eateries, according to records.

In total, Robertson's fund spent $114,000 in 2013. December saw by far the most spending, with $25,546 - including $14,250 for "strategic planning" consultants - charged.

In response to questions from the Sunday Province, Robertson's office said spending limits in the mayor's fund were frozen at $128,400 in 2009, and that actual spending has decreased from $125,400 in 2010 to an average of $113,000 since.

In 2008, NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan spent $130,715, according to figures provided to the Sunday Province by Robertson's staff. Robertson's office said that he serves in a number of executive roles representing Vancouver among other cities, which requires travel, resources and support not covered by the city's corporate communications department. Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said discretionary mayoral spending pools generally meet the definition of "political slush funds."

"You use money that you don't have to go to council to get, and spend it on your pet projects," he said. "And with all this travel and spending and so much is international these days - very rarely do taxpayers see any concrete returns."

In 2012, Dianne Watts spent $22,966 on events and meetings, according to Surrey financial records.

Read original documents on spending from the mayor's discretionary fund at