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A closer look: New West council’s separation allowances spark debate

Should New Westminster politicos still collect separation allowances after landing new jobs?"
New West council, shown at its inaugural meeting in 2022, is divided on changes proposed to council remuneration policy.

Should New Westminster mayor and councillor still be able to collect their separation allowances after leaving city council if they get another job?

That was the question raised in a motion from Coun. Daniel Fontaine, who proposed amending city policy to eliminate the possibility of “double dipping” by former mayors and councillors.

The City of New Westminster’s 2010 council remuneration policy states the mayor and council will be entitled to a separation allowance upon completion of their term(s) in office equivalent to 10 per cent of their annual indemnity for each year of service commencing after Dec. 1, 2008 (12-year cap).

At Monday’s meeting, council considered a motion from Coun. Daniel Fontaine to ask legal counsel to draft an amendment to the council remuneration policy, such that the separation allowance be set up as a salary continuance for a maximum of 12 months that can be terminated upon a former council member becoming gainfully employed full time within the first year after ceasing to serve on council, rather than as a lump sum payment at the time of separation.

Fontaine said the current policy enables someone to get paid by the City of New Westminster for up to a year after leaving office, even if they have a new job. He said his motion attempts to “bring some fiscal discipline” to the remuneration policy by eliminating the transition allowance for people who have full-time employment after leaving council.

“This only impacts individuals who have found a job,” he said. “If you are not working full time, you will collect your … 12 months of payment; this does not prevent you from doing that. It says if you've been gainfully employed, you found yourself full-time work, you do not need the taxpayers of New Westminster to continue paying you month after month up to 12 months. That's what this motion says.”

In a 5-2 vote, council defeated Fontaine’s motion. The motion was defeated along party lines, with New West Progressive councillors Fontaine and Minhas voting in support and council members who ran with Community First New West voting in opposition.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said the motion would result in the creation of a two-tier system whereby people who are of retirement age get additional compensation in comparison with people who are of a working age. She also argued that it wouldn’t be enforceable because the city doesn’t keep records of council members’ employment after they leave office.

“To my knowledge, the City of New Westminster doesn't have access to records of where people are working,” she said. “So, if I were to leave council, and let’s say, go work in, I don't know, England, I'm not sure how you would track that for me.”

Nakagawa said she recently co-published a research paper about the barriers experienced by people when serving on council.

“Compensation was a major one for people of working age; the fact that we don't get pensions and we're not treated like regular employees in a lot of ways,” she said. “So I don't believe in a system that privileges people who might have the ability to not seek employment after serving on council over people who must in order to pay their bills.”

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said he fundamentally disagreed with a clause in Fontaine’s motion, which stated: the intent of the separation allowance ought to be limited to bridging the employment gap after a member has ceased to serve on council.

Johnstone said the separation allowance is a benefit that elected government officials receive, at least partly to address the fact that they're not provided access to pensions while doing council work. He said a lot of people who are in their early- or mid-careers would be giving up pensionable income in order to do council work.

“If you want younger, early-career or mid-career people to take on this work, you need to recognize that for many of them, it means putting some of their career aspirations aside, and access to pension is, or at the very least, should be an important part of every compensation package,” he said. “I think the separation allowance here was designed specifically to allow people leaving this work, an opportunity to invest in RRSP or other pension-like benefits.”

Double dipping?

Johnstone also expressed concern about the use of the term “double dipping” in the motion. He said the majority of people on city council have outside jobs, but that’s not double dipping – it’s having two jobs.

“I think that using a pejorative term like double dipping to define that, it's a little bit disrespectful to members of current council and past,” he said. “I just ask us to check our language on that. I think adding a pejorative, the idea that people are receiving compensation for the work they're doing is, I don't think is appropriate.”

Fontaine responded that: “I did not use the word double dipping, you did.”

Johnstone then pointed out that the term “double dipping” is included in the title of the motion Fontaine had presented to council for its consideration.

“I stand corrected,” Fontaine replied. “But it is double dipping, in fact; you're collecting a full-time salary working somewhere and you're also collecting separation allowance. That term double dipping is referring to someone collecting both.”

Separation allowance

Following a 2010 staff review of the remuneration policy, council approved an updated policy that included allowances for council members leaving office and extended health benefits, something the review found was being offered in a number of municipalities. It was then that the policy was amended to include a separation allowance.

"It is generally paid at the termination of their term of elected service and is primarily focused on mitigating the impacts to the individual of transitioning out of elected office back to private life," stated the 2010 staff report.

Fontaine didn’t name anyone in particular when discussing his motion Monday night, but he said someone could start as  a councillor, become mayor and then leave city hall and “literally weeks later” get  a job at Metro.

Jonathan Cote, who served three terms as a councillor and two terms as mayor, did not seek re-election in the October 2022 civic election. In January 2023, Cote became Metro Vancouver’s deputy general manager of regional planning and housing development.

The Record has reached out to city hall for details about separation allowances to members of council who were defeated or did not seek re-election in the October 2022 municipal election. More to come

In June, the City of New Westminster released its 2022 statement of financial information report, which included a document about council remuneration. At that time, documents showed that former councillor Chuck Puchmayr had received a “transitional allowance” of $47,010.

Staff told The Record in June that separation allowances for Cote, as well as former councillors Chinu Das and Mary Trentadue, would be included in the 2023 statement of financial information, which will be released next spring.

In an Oct. 31 email to The Record, Jacqueline Dairon, the city’s acting director of finance, provided figures for the separation allowances for those council members: Cote – $106.442.62; Trentadue – $36,301.77;  and Das – $20,374.47.

Previously, Wayne Wright qualified for a separation allowance of about $50,000 after serving as mayor from 2002 to 2014. Former councillor Betty McIntosh received about $20,000 after serving on council for 15 years.

A New West Progressives promise

Monday’s motion isn’t the first time the New Westminster Progressives have voiced concerns about the separation allowance.

During the 2018 civic election campaign, the New Westminster Progressives called for an end to the separation allowance and pledged to put forward a motion in council to rescind the policy. At that time, the Progressives pledged to ask city staff to deposit the funds into the city’s rent bank account if the motion didn’t pass.

Following Monday’s decision, New West Progressive councillors Fontaine and Paul Minhas issued a press release under the headline: New Westminster mayor and his councillors vote to keep separation windfall at taxpayer expense.

In the press release, the two councillors say the “generous” separation allowance for mayor and council should not be “a costly golden parachute lump sum payment” and should be tied to an elected official’s successful transition to full-time employment away from city hall.

“There’s a principle here that the mayor and his councillors ignored,” Fontaine said. “Taxpayers are not ATM machines, and while it’s fair to help elected officials transition to new full-time employment, it is not fair to taxpayers to pay a lump sum payment when an elected officials move to a new full-time job in a matter of days or weeks after leaving office. Turning down our motion speaks volumes about how the mayor and his councillors feel about taxpayers and their tax dollars. Last night the mayor and his councillors voted to keep their golden parachutes while ignoring the impact on city taxpayers.”

According to Minhas, an outgoing mayor would receive $147,000 and councillors would receive $56,000. (Those figures are more than the figures provided by the city’s finance department for elected officials who have chosen not to seek reelection or were defeated. See above.)

“The idea behind the separation allowance for elected officials recognizes that elected officials may take some time to transition to a full-time job after being on council,” Minhas said in the news release. “We think that’s a fair approach, but when a former mayor or councillor step into a new job, particularly right away, that payment should end once they have full-time employment, rather than receiving a lump-sum payment that feels more like a bonus than a transition payment.”