Tehkummah councillors get 55 recommendations from Municipal Affairs to improve operations

TEHKUMMAH––Representatives from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing presented 55 recommendations to Tehkummah council on Wednesday, April 18 after a review of the financial and administrative practices, policies and procedures of the Township. Immediate and long-term recommendations were made for improvements to municipal accountability, openness and transparency, and financial management.

The minister initiated the review following receipt of a petition containing 110 signatures (representing more than one-quarter of the municipality’s population) requesting the province conduct a provincial-municipal audit regarding the financial and administrative practices of the Township of Tehkummah. The petition raised concerns regarding municipal practices related to tax collection; financial management practices; and accountability and transparency issues.

The ministry also conducted an informal investigation into the matters raised in the petition. Following a review of the materials submitted with the petition and obtained from the municipality and conducting interviews with the clerk-treasurer, reeve, lead petitioner and the municipal auditor, it was determined that a provincial-municipal audit was not warranted.

However, the investigation determined that many of the issues raised in the petition were the result of a lack of financial and administrative policies or procedures as well as a misinterpretation of the municipality’s financial statements. These could be addressed or potentially resolved by the Township developing and adhering to policies related to accountability, transparency and financial management.

The objective of the review was to obtain information about the administrative and financial policies, practices and procedures of the municipality. The review would provide the municipality with suggestions for improvement in the areas reviewed to help ensure the governance of the municipality is carried out in an accountable and transparent manner, and to help safeguard municipal financial assets.

Recommendations for improvement were made in various areas. Those identified as ‘immediate’ are either fairly easy to implement in the short term or address key issues directly connected to those issues which triggered the review. ‘Longer term’ recommendations will require additional time and resources to implement but also  address the working relationships between staff and council as well as increase the accountability and transparency of municipal operations.

Kathy Horgan, senior municipal financial advisor with the ministry, noted the key administrative issues included variances between procedural bylaw and council practices that are not contained within a procedural bylaw; the absence of certain accountability and transparency policies required under the Municipal Act; inconsistent reporting to council and completion of minutes; and strained relations between council and staff. The administrative review component focused on the procedural bylaw; policies required under section 270(1) of the Municipal Act, 2001, such as the sale and disposition of land, hiring of employees, procurement, notice; and delegation of powers and duties; other policies related to accountability and transparency including code of conduct, complaints, records retention and website. Also addressed under the administrative component were municipal freedom of information; education and training; and council/staff communications.

Key financial findings included the need for various financial policies and procedures and the need for additional staff training. The financial review focused on accounting system software; temporary and long-term borrowing; budgets; cash management; council remuneration and expenses report; financial reports to council; municipal property taxation; and user fees.

“Recommendations are meant to be constructive nature and meant to assist,” said Ms. Horgan. “We work with a lot of small municipalities and find that a lot of policies and procedures are missing in smaller municipalities.

Ministry staff are available to assist staff and council in implementation of these recommendations.  “We can help setting up procedures and policies,” said Ms. Horgan. “Where we’ve identified some training we can come and do that.”

“Fifty-five recommendations seem like a lot,” she acknowledged. “It looks daunting but I don’t think it is. In some places you’re already doing the work. You just need to put it in writing.

Councillor Mike McKenzie inquired about notice. “Municipalities are required to provide notice,” explained Ms. Horgan. “It could be notice of council meeting or notice of intent to adopt the budget or even notice of road closure. It’s up to the municipality how they will provide notice. If they comply they’re above board.”

The review also recommended the Township maintain a municipal website. “You can provide notice on the website or use the local paper. Notice in the procedures bylaw is a common thing.”

Another recommendation referred to the Records Retention Bylaw, suggesting it should be approved by the municipal auditor. Paul Prosperi, who completed the financial component of the review noted, “There have been recent changes under Bill 68. It is considered a Best Practice. The auditor is in the best position to advice but it doesn’t require auditor approval. As a best practice it provides a second set of eyes so you’re not destroying records before you should.”

Ministry staff were asked what council can do regarding municipal records that were removed from the municipal office and placed in locked storage. “The issue speaks to the importance of having a policy that clearly describes where records are stored and for how long. What is written in policy must guide the actions of staff,” explained Mr. Prosperi. “The more detail in the policy the less discrepancy in how records are retained, stored or archived. If a decision has been made at council, staff must follow council direction.”

Councillor Mike McKenzie stated, “Council and staff currently do not know where our records are.”

“That situation is a council matter that we can’t get into,” stated Ms. Horgan.

Mr. Prosperi added, “having documents stored off-site doesn’t preclude an individual requesting documents. It just may take longer to receive them. At the end of the day it’s about the security of the records and it comes down to having a clear policy.”

Once the review has been completed and recommendations made, there is no obligation to ministry to follow up. “That is council’s job. They make the decisions,” said Ms. Horgan. “My staff will follow up to see where they need assistance. It will be council’s choice what they’re going to implement and how. Paul is the initial point of contact with the ministry. Remember we’re here to help make this as smooth for you as possible for what you decide to implement.”

A community member reminded council of the petition. “We owe those 110 petitioners that these recommendations be implemented. 110 signatures see a problem.”