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New West Progressives sound alarm about former mayor’s separation allowance

Should New Westminster council members accept a severance allowance from the city if they get another job?
Jonathan Cote
New West Progressives are concerned about former mayor Jonathan Cote's separation allowance.

The New West Progressives are once again taking issue with a city policy that allowed former mayor Jonathan Cote to collect a six-figure separation allowance.

A New West Progressives news release states the city’s annual statement of financial information report shows that Cote received a $106,443 separation allowance payment from New West taxpayers after he left civic politics and took a job at Metro Vancouver.

Coun. Paul Minhas told the Record this morning he was not aware that the statement of financial information report was included on the June 24 council agenda, but felt the public needed to know about the “transition allowance” cote would be receiving.

“The people have the right to know,” he said. “And it was important for us to bring it to the forefront of what's really happening.”

The New Westminster Progressives news release states Cote, who is Metro Vancouver’s deputy general manager, regional planning and housing development, had compensation of $209,407 from Metro Vancouver in 2023. The news release states those combined payments came to more than $315,000, almost $100,000 more than Premier David Eby is paid.

“Last year, we tried to reform this pricey transition allowance policy last year, but the Community First politicians at city hall voted it down,” Minhas said in the news release. “Our local taxpayers are dealing with inflation and a cumulative property tax increase of 14 per cent over the past two years, so this ‘golden parachute’ is hard for taxpayers to have to stomach when you realize that our former mayor got a massive transition allowance as he was headed to the high-paying job at Metro Vancouver.”

Cote served three terms as a councillor and two terms as a mayor but did not   seek re-election in the October 2022 civic election. He began working with Metro Vancouver in January 2023.

Asked if he would accept council’s separation allowance when he leaves political office, Minhas said he would not collect it for ethical reasons.

“While I understand it's crucial to recognize the contributions and services of elected officials, we also need to prioritize the well-being of our community,” he said. “It is important to consider the burden it places on New Westminster taxpayers, who continue to pay high taxes. It is also essential that we allocate public funds responsibly, while addressing the pressing needs of our city.”

Minhas said council needs to ensure its policies are “fair and reasonable” and to consider the financial strain on taxpayers.

“Legally, he's entitled to it,” he said of Cote, “but ethically, he didn't have to accept it.”

The City of New Westminster’s council remuneration policy defines the procedures for setting, reviewing and approving council indemnities and outlines the remuneration to be received by the mayor and councillors. This includes their regular indemnity, their acting mayor stipend, health and dental benefits, life insurance and separation allowance.

“The mayor and council will be entitled to a separation allowance upon completion of their term(s) in office equivalent to ten percent of their annual indemnity for each year of service commencing after Dec. 1, 2008 (a 12-year cap),” states the policy.

Who has collected?

In the fall of 2010, the city adopted the separation allowance as part of an updated council remuneration policy.

"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. "The practice is to base the calculation on the separation allowance on that used by the city for the calculation of municipal pension contribution on behalf of employees."

Former councillor Bob Osterman was the first to receive the separation allowance after being defeated in the 2011 election. Following the 2014 civic election, former mayor Wayne Wright received a separation allowance of about $50,000 and former councillor Betty McIntosh received about $20,000.

In 2022, former councillor Chuck Puchmayr received a separation allowance of $47,010; he was one of several council members who were not re-elected or did not seek re-election receiving severance allowances.

The statement of financial information, posted today as part of Monday’s council package, includes a report about council remuneration. It shows that Cote received $106.443, while former councillor Mary Trentadue and Chinu Das would receive $36,302 and $20,374, respectively, for their separation allowances.

Motion defeated

In October 2023, council voted 5-2 against a motion from Coun. Daniel Fontaine regarding an amendment to the council remuneration policy.

Fontaine’s motion called for setting up the separation allowance as a salary continuance for a maximum of 12 months, rather than a lump sum payment at the time of separation, so it could be terminated if a former council member becomes gainfully employed full time within the first year after ceasing to serve on council.

Last year, Fontaine said he was proposing the amendment to the city’s policy to eliminate the possibility of “double dipping” by former mayors and councillors. He said the amendment would only impact individuals who find full-time jobs after serving on council.

At that time, Coun. Nadine Nakagawa expressed concern about creating a two-tier system whereby people who are of retirement age get additional compensation in comparison with people who are of a working age. Nakagawa previously 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 during the discussion on the motion. “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.”

When speaking against Fontaine’s motion, Nakagawa stated it would be creating an unenforceable policy 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.”

While it could be “a little bit challenging” Minhas told the Record “there's ways to figure these things out.”

“I have a private business. And this is a common practice that's found in the private sector, where the continuance of salary or severance pay is adjusted, is adjusted, to reflect the employment status of an individual during the transition period. “

If the New West Progressives elect a majority on council in 2026, Minhas said one of the first governance reforms he’ll be advocating for is to limit how much transition allowance elected officials can receive after they’re gainfully employed.

In the meantime, Minhas said “it’s important for our current mayor to let our community know if he plans to accept a sizable transition allowance once he leaves office, even if he is working full-time only weeks out of office.”

The Record has contacted Cote for comment.