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Back from overseas

Regional councillors, staff return from $90k taxpayers-funded trip to Europe

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The anaerobic digester and biogas generator in Bourg-en-Bresse, France was one of several sites a group of regional councillors and staff visited on a trip to Europe earlier this month. According to documents obtained by The Oshawa Express through the Municipal Freedom of Information request, the initial costs of the trip came in at more than $90,000 for the group of eight to go to France and Spain for nine days.

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

Regional councillors and staff have returned from their trip to Europe to investigate anaerobic digestion, and now more details of the trip have come to light.

Following a Municipal Freedom of Information request, The Oshawa Express has obtained correspondence between regional staff and councillors pertaining to the trip.

Included in the correspondence is an estimate of most of the trip’s cost. According to an email to Curtis from the travel agent used by the region, the total cost of airfare and land costs – which include hotels and transportation – is just over $90,000. Other costs, including cash advances to staff from the works department, were also identified.

The group of eight – made up of Roger Anderson, Durham’s regional chair; Councillors Nester Pidwerbecki, Colleen Jordan and Jack Ballinger; Cliff Curtis, the commissioner of works; Garry Cubitt, the chief administrative officer for the region; Mirka Januszkiewicz, director of waste management; Craig Bartlett, manager of waste operations; and Peter Veiga, waste services supervisor – flew to Paris on June 30, with most returning July 9, in order to investigate anaerobic digestion, which turns compost into biogas, as a means of energy production.

The nine-day trip included stops at digesters in Lyon, Le Puy, Montpellier and two in Barcelona.

Nailing down dates

One of the first issues that came up during planning was when exactly the trip would take place. While direction had been given to plan the trip for early July, it became evident that a major event in France could make planning more difficult – the Euro Cup soccer tournament.

“We have a scheduling problem,” Curtis writes in an April 13 email to Anderson.

“We were going to be in Paris and Lyon during the period when the Euro2016 Soccer Championships are on. Not a good time to be trying to find a hotel or even space on trains or subways. Do you still want to proceed with the June/July timing or switch to later in September?”

“Foe (sic) many reason July is the worst possible timing,” Januszkiewicz adds in another email.

However, the decision was made to keep with the proposed timeline, with Anderson writing in an email less than an hour after Curtis’ initial email, “Stick to dates. Thanks.”

According to media reports at the time, people heading to France to catch some soccer were met with increased hotel costs, with some rooms even doubling in price.

Speaking with The Oshawa Express, Curtis says he does not believe the Euro Cup made much of a difference in hotel pricing, but with the time of year, it was going to be more expensive either way.

“It was the only time we could get everybody’s schedules together – the politicians in particular, as there are very narrow windows of opportunity,” he says.

“I’m not sure how much more expensive (it was because of the Euro Cup), but generally traveling in the summer is more expensive in Europe than the fall. Unfortunately, by the fall, council’s geared back up and we just couldn’t make it work.”

There is no indication in the documents reviewed by The Oshawa Express as to the price paid per night for the region’s trip to France and Spain, with all accommodations grouped into one rate, and no indication of what type of room was booked.

According to a copy of trip statements made after bookings were made, councillors and staff stayed at five different hotels throughout the trip, with another document mentioning that mostly four-star hotels would be booked.

For example, according to Hotels.com, the first hotel stayed in by the group, the Mercure Paris Opéra Faubourg Montmartre, costs anywhere between $130 and $195 per room per night, depending on room choice and when the booking was made. According to the trip statements, bookings were made on May 20, approximately six weeks prior to arrival in Europe.

As well, according to trip documents, three members of the group – Curtis, Januszkiewicz and Cubitt – stayed an extra two days in Madrid, with their extended stay at the Hotel Tryp Apolo – rooms range anywhere from $137 to $427 per night, according to Hotels.com – covered by the region.

Curtis says the decision was made for the trio to stay an extra two days because there was not enough room for everyone to fly back at the same time. While most of the group flew back to Canada on July 9, the trio flew back on July 11.

Extra cash on hand

In mid-May, approximately a month after the planning for the trip began in earnest, Curtis made a request for cash to be advanced to him and his staff for the trip. In total, Curtis was requesting 10,000 Euros in cash, or the equivalent of more than $14,000, split evenly between himself, Januszkiewicz, Bartlett and Veiga.

Speaking with The Oshawa Express, Curtis says the cash was to cover incidentals that may pop up during the trip, and to cover expenses in places where alternative forms of payment, such as credit cards, was not available.

In the end, Curtis says he and his staff did not receive the full cash amount requested, with him receiving 2,500 Euros – just under $3,600 – and the other three receiving 250 Euros – just under $360 – each.

“The rest was in Canadian cash, so they precharged their credit cards,” he adds.

In an email to Curtis’ office prior to the official request being made, Joanne Cermak, the region’s director of financial services, said that if the cash is given out, there will need to be records of where it was spent.

“On return, each of those receiving an advance will be required to provide receipts for every use/return any surplus balance,” she writes in the May 10 email.

“The receipt will have to detail the names of those for whom expenses have been paid. We can work with you after the trip in completing the expense claim forms.”

 

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