City sends seven to conferences

A budget of up to $15,000 has been approved to send seven members of council to two conferences. Members contacted by City Scene Barrie say it’s money well spent. What do you, the taxpaying public, have to say? Comment through the link at the bottom of the story, or through Twitter using #barrieconferences.

by John Devine

When general committee decided last week not to extend the community grants program, it did so with the general attitude that the City shouldn’t be in the business of providing such discretionary financial support, and especially not in these economically trying times.
On the same night committee voted to send seven members of council to two conferences: five to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) conference in Halifax, June 3-6, and two to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference, Aug. 21-24 in London.

Mayor Jeff Lehman

Mayor Jeff Lehman will join councillors Peter Silveira, Michael Prowse, John Brassard and Doug Shipley as the Barrie delegation in Halifax, while Lehman and Coun. Barry Ward will travel to London.
A maximum budget of $15,000 has been established to cover all conference-related expenses for both events. Although it amounts to discretionary spending, it’s money well spent say members of council contacted by City Scene Barrie.
Benefits generated from attending conferences like the Halifax and London ones run the gamut from identifying funding opportunities to skills development, said Lehman. While training and exposure to new ideas may be hard to quantify in terms of return on investment, the mayor points out it’s a common business strategy to send personnel to skills-development and networking events.
“Every company … pays for training for their employees because it usually means they are more effective in their jobs.”
Ward 7’s Brassard says members of council have been attending these conferences for years because there is value in them.
“I’ve been to FCM for the past two years and have had the opportunity to meet with federal ministers, network with other municipal leaders, attend workshops, and vendor displays, all in an effort to either promote our City’s agenda or bring back ideas that enhance the experience of living in Barrie, or (that) make us more efficient,” he told City Scene Barrie.
Ward 1 Coun. Bonnie Ainsworth said she doesn’t see a correlation between sending members of council to conferences and not funding programs like the community grants one just ended.
“As I said before, I don’t think people need government to give their money to charity. That is not what government is for. It is that simple for me,” she said, adding that Barrie should be represented at the conferences.
“I appreciate that our mayor and some members of council will take time out of their lives to go and carry the flag for us and promote our city. Often good ideas come from these (meetings) with peers.”
The conferences, said Ward 6 Coun. Michael Prowse, are work, not play, and require attendees to take time away from regular employment; council work is deemed to be part-time.
It would be possible to send one member of council to each conference, Prowse allowed, but that would mean missing valuable sessions scheduled at the same time.
“While you could send one person, the reality is that these conferences are designed so that the information is broad based and far reaching, and for many years we have sent several members of council and there has always been a payoff for the city.”
The AMO conference presents the opportunity to network with other Ontario municipalities and discuss infrastructure and funding issues with provincial ministers, said Prowse.
“It is a unique opportunity to pitch our needs to people who can make a difference.”
The councillor, who has attended the annual FCM conference for the past seven years, points to the gas tax revenue that Barrie, and other municipalities, receives as a benefit from being at the conference.
“I … first got involved when FCM had the great idea of pushing the federal government, then under Paul Martin, for a share of the gas tax. We were successful and I was present when then Prime Minister Martin announced that the gas tax would be shared with municipalities across Canada, because of the lobbying and work done at FCM.
“Today, the City of Barrie receives millions of dollars every year because of that work. That is just one success story, but there are many, many more that are brought home every year by our delegates at these events.”
When considering expenses such as the budget for conferences, a perspective on what other municipalities spend is useful, suggests the mayor.
“Barrie’s budget for conferences is a fraction of our peers – for example, most municipalities send councillors to three or four conferences per year. Barrie doesn’t … we only go to FCM and AMO. Secondly, councillors typically go to extremes to keep costs down.
“For example, Rodney Jackson (then councillor for Ward 3 and now Barrie’s Progressive Conservative candidate) and I drove to Windsor last year together, and stayed in a low-cost hotel away from the conference centre, to keep costs down.”
While acknowledging that council can decide not to participate in conferences, Brassard says he feels that would be a poor choice for the city and its residents.
“I (as a resident) want my municipal leaders to be where other government leaders are. I also want them to be part of a group that pushes for and promotes the agenda of municipalities.”

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