By Trevor Busch
Councillors participating in a biannual overseas exchange with the community’s sister city in Japan will now be receiving financial support from the Town of Taber following a split 4-3 vote last week.
In response to a request from Coun. Joe Strojwas, administration had investigated if there had ever been financial support from the Town of Taber for councillors participating in the bi-annual exchange with the community’s sister city, Higashiomi City, Japan.
“Some councillors might be better able to cover the expense than others, and the thought was that maybe there should be some contribution from the town to help pay for, or reimburse the expense to the councillors,” said CAO Greg Birch, explaining Coun. Strojwas’ intent in bringing the issue forward.
Administration’s investigation determined there has been no support since at least 2005, while prior to this was not investigated.
“I think everybody needs to experience the connection that we have with twinned cities, and I believe if we’re going to have this connection with this twinned city, if there’s anybody due to finances that can’t make it, that it should be open to all councillors,” said Coun. Strojwas. “They should have the chance to partake of this. It was definitely a very rewarding experience. You get to understand the Japanese people and the pride they have for these type of relationships. It should be open to everybody.”
On Aug. 18, council initially voted 4-3 to defeat the recommended motion that council not provide financial support for councillors participating in a visitor exchange with Higashiomi City, Japan, because no funding is provided to any public members who participate in an exchange.
Coun.(s) Jack Brewin, Randy Sparks, and Rick Popadynetz voted in favour of the motion. Coun.(s) Laura Ross-Giroux, Andrew Prokop, Joe Strojwas and Mayor Henk De Vlieger were opposed.
“This is a committment every second year,” said Coun. Strojwas. “Basically what you’re talking about is a $2,000 flight. That’s something I think should be unilaterally available to all councillors.”
According to administration’s written justification for their recommendation, “It is difficult to justify funding councillors and not non-councillors who make the same trip. Likely there are other Taber residents who would like to participate in an exchange with our Japanese sister city, but cannot afford to do so.”
Coun. Randy Sparks suggested a councillor interested in travelling to Japan as a representative of the community should have to make a decision between other obligations currently funded by the community.
“It is open to any councillors that want to go right now. Any councillors that want to participate, they’re asked and given the opportunity to go, so those who wish to go, do have that opportunity. I don’t believe that it would be in our best interests to make this a budget item, that the Town of Taber is going to pay for councillors that want to go on this trip to Japan. That’s just my opinion. I guess if they couldn’t afford the whole thing, there might be an interest free loan that could be done that they could pay back, but I would not be in favour of financial support, as far as paying a councillor’s way to Japan. I guess maybe a councillor would have to make a choice, either AUMA or Japan.”
Comparing a biannual trip to Japan with a councillor’s annual conference attendences is comparing apples to oranges, according to Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux.
“I think we have to differentiate also between conferences and AUMA, and trips to Japan. To me, AUMA and its workshops are almost mandatory to some extent. Those are educational opportunities. The trip to Japan I see as for the betterment of the town, and it does strengthen the ties. Personally, I will never be able to afford to go to Japan myself. I wouldn’t mind getting a little help, because I’m going to be there as a representative of the town, and not as a personal trip.”
Coun. Sparks disagreed with Ross-Giroux’s characterization of the issue.
“I would hope that attending conferences and AUMA is for the betterment of the town. Because if it isn’t then we shouldn’t be attending. That’s why individuals go to these things. I’m not saying that this isn’t a partnership we should have with this twin city, but I just struggle slightly with paying for this.”
In a follow-up motion, council voted 4-3 to provide financial support for one councillor every second year, covering the air flight of that individual to attend the twinning arrangement with Higashiomi City, Japan.
Coun.(s) Laura Ross-Giroux, Andrew Prokop, Joe Strojwas and Mayor Henk De Vlieger voted in favour of the motion. Coun.(s) Jack Brewin, Randy Sparks and Rick Popadynetz were opposed.
Mayor Henk De Vlieger appeared to view the trip as a duty of an elected official that must be discharged, and showed support for allocating public funds for this purpose.
“It’s a town function. You go on behalf of the town. If you weren’t on council, the chances you would go there probably aren’t that great. Basically, you get a little forced into it, too. We want a partnership with another community, but then you’re expected to look after your own expenses. I find this might be hard, but I think it’s worth some conversation. I think it would be fair, because a normal citizen doesn’t have to go there, but just because you’re on council somebody has to go to Japan. Sure there’s probably some leisure time, but it probably wouldn’t be your first choice trip, either.”
Coun. Popadynetz expressed his opinion that using taxpayer dollars to help fund an elected official’s trip to Japan was not in the best interests of the Town of Taber.
“This is a good partnership — I’m not saying this is a bad partnership. It’s great that the town has a partnership with a community in Japan. It’s obviously easier for people from Japan to afford a trip to Canada than it is for Canadians to travel to Japan. It’s definitely something that I’d like to attend, but there’s no way financially that I can in the near future. I don’t support this, because I don’t think the taxpayers should be paying for a personal trip to Japan. If I was to go, I’d like to enjoy myself and have some personal time.”
Coun. Strojwas participated in the most recent exchange earlier this year as the Town of Taber’s official representative.