The Niagara Region released 20 years of council expense reports in January, including seven years of monthly expenses.
The reports were made public after Regional Chair Alan Caslin made a freedom of information request to have them released.
Since then, the documents have been under heavy scrutiny by members of the local media and local political groups.
In particular, Caslin’s expenses have been called into question, having been significantly more than most regional councillors in most years. Caslin spent $24,251 in 2016 and in some cases expensed meals upwards of $200.
Most councillors expense between $1,000 and $10,000 annually.
Niagara Now sat down with Caslin Thursday afternoon to hear his side of the expenses.
He said there are a number of factors to consider when looking at the figures.
With regards to meals, he said a lot of times he is buying for everybody at the table because he’s the most senior individual.
“And that’s just the way it is … whether that’s eight people at the table or whether that’s two people at the table … and on most bills it lists the number of guests, so you know how many people who were eating or participating in whatever that meal was.”
Niagara Now only found guest numbers on around 50 per cent of receipts in 2016 and 2017. Restaurants that didn’t include guest numbers included The Guru Fine Indian Cuisine in Niagara Falls and The Blue Mermaid in St. Catharines — two places Caslin regularly visits.
Caslin said he recently went through the report and analyzed the bills himself, as it was “time to reflect.”
“I had to do it for my own piece of mind. You know, seeing the stories that were all twisted … made me stop and think, ‘well, what am I really doing here?’”
Caslin is referring to stories which accuse him of having no supporting receipts with his reports. Many receipts are included.
“So I took the time to go through every single receipt and mark down every single charge and how many people were there and average it.”
He said by his calculations he expensed about 175 meals per year, spending an average of around $24 per meal when compared to the number of guests, and about $200 a month for meals overall. He also noted a larger figure is to be expected in months where council attends conferences, since they will be eating out more often.
Based on the Open Data reports, Niagara Now calculated from 2015 to 2017 his average monthly meal expense was closer to $150.
Caslin said he thinks his expenses are fairly reasonable, considering the average.
“You really need to look at all the numbers and all the data. Because it’s all there,” said Caslin.
“One of (the meals) I can tell you from memory was three councillors and five business people at the meeting — eight people — and one person has to pick up the tab. I'm highest ranking official; it ought to be me.”
“You know, anybody can take any data set and twist it in a different way such that they emphasize a point that is maybe not relevant … It’s child’s play. What’s important is to get a balanced and unbiased review of what’s out there.”
With regards to the restaurants — some of them known to be high-end — Caslin said choosing places with the right environment is realistically an important factor when meeting with people as a representative of the region.
“I have to go to a place where I can talk in an intimate fashion because chances are people either want to get my opinion or give me their opinion and they want to do that in a semi-private setting.”
You can’t go somewhere that doesn’t fit that bill, Caslin said.
“There are people with expectations, who just won’t come if that’s what you’re going to do … There’s a cost to business. There’s a cost of entertaining, there’s a cost to get out there.”
Caslin said when he released the reports he “absolutely” expected people to dig through them.
“The further they dig through it, the better it is for me, because quite frankly there’s nothing there that doesn’t make sense,” he said, joking that he “doesn’t need any more food.”
“But from time to time, I do have to do entertaining, whether it be a developer or business person or somebody from Queen’s Park or another level of government.”
He said he thinks the transparency of releasing the documents is significant, adding that the majority of council was pleased to put it out to “clear the air.”
“There’s always people that will say, well maybe I didn’t want my expenses shown, but quite frankly I think the majority of those who spent responsibly are fine with having it available to everyone.”
“Quite frankly, those who are spending money and entertaining people and visiting functions, they’re the ones doing work for you,” Caslin said. “Some mayors have (their expenses) through the city, but those who have zero expenses, chances are they’re not doing a lot for you as a community representative.”
He said part of the reason he asked for 20 years of expenses to be released was in an effort to boost the Region’s Open Data system, which offers Regional data to Niagara residents.
“We said, if we can do three (years), why not twenty?”
The expense reports have also received scrutiny for not including the names of who was at the meetings.
Caslin said the names aren't written into the reports as a matter of privacy, and though it isn't an official policy, it's something he said he thinks is important to respect.
“In a lot of cases, people are coming to see me because they’re looking for a new business opportunity, or they’ve got an edge. Perhaps it’s a location in Niagara, perhaps it’s a business idea that they want to develop, but quite frankly not everybody wants their name published in a public document like that,” he said.
“And while there’s nothing to hide in terms of who I meet with, it’s important to respect their wishes of confidentiality … It doesn’t really bode well for Niagara if I start breaching confidentiality with the first lunch that I have with somebody. And I respect that. I have to respect that.”
He said if somebody comes to him with a competitive business idea, often they don’t want their ideas to be public knowledge until the project is more set in stone.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come to me with ideas of putting a winery in place. You know, it’s a very competitive market. Something that anybody would recognize.”
He continued: “For instance, Amazon. We put in a bid … We knew it was quite of a stretch for us, that’s why we didn’t invest a lot of time or energy into it. The next week I got a call from one of Amazon’s competitors now wanting to locate in Niagara, and they asked me specifically: ‘please don’t mention our name.’”
“I have to respect that. That’s part of doing business. And I know if I just ‘oh, X,Y,Z wants to locate in Niagara,’ — that’s it. They’re gonna discuss it and say ‘you know what, Brampton is our place, let’s go.”
There are also times when someone is having a challenging time interacting with a Region department, and it becomes important not to create further conflict between that person and the department, especially if there is a mutual project that’s still in planning stages. Caslin said sometimes those individuals want to express their concerns to him directly and it would be the last thing he’d want to advertise, for the complainant’s sake.
On top of that, he said certain times there are other factors that prevent announcements from being made.
“A lot of the information that I’m party to is embargoed. Embargoed information meaning it’s going to be public, but it’s just not public right now,” Caslin said. “A lot of that happened around the announcement for GO Train for example. There was embargoed documents going back and forth every day about what was going to happen, how it was going to happen, and that’s not something I was able to share with the public until the province was able to announce their intentions, at which time it was no longer embargoed.”
He said that happens “from time to time with different things.”
“It’s not as if we’re trying to keep anything from the public. We’re not. Everything here is totally transparent, it’s just when I can let things out is sometimes contingent on other people, other government and their business.”
Additionally, Caslin said there are often stipulations of non-disclosure agreements, as well as the Municipal Act, which says if information doesn’t have to be disclosed right away if it is set to be made public at a certain point in the future.
He described one incidence where we council was meeting with a group regarding a social housing project, which had “a lot of moving parts.”
“There was the financial institutions, there was a private developer, there was a charitable organization that was going to run the housing, as well as the Region and the city.”
He continued: “So all those players, all those pieces had to drop into place in a particular way for this all to work. And I know for a fact that nobody wanted me to out anybody that was in that particular meeting until in fact we had it in front of council for approval, so we didn’t have to face the court of public opinion before the council had a chance to look at it and decide what they want to do.”
He said there are “absolutely” times where council wants that court of public opinion.
“Here we are three and a half years into the term, and it’s now time to start thinking about what our strategic plan is going to be going forward.”
Caslin said starting Monday he will be hosting community forums where he will sit down with Niagara stakeholders, charitable organizations and anybody else is interested to talk about what they would like to see for Niagara going forward.
“I think it’s time to reflect back on where we came from and what we’ve achieved today, and also where we’re going. That doesn’t happen without input from the stakeholders, on a very raw scale. Because I really need to hear from them — what are you seeing? And what do you want to see going forward?”
“I can guess what it’s going to be, but quite frankly until I hear from the stakeholders — and whether it be the business community or the other side of the spectrum, those who are helping those impoverished in our community, we need to hear from them directly.”
Caslin said he’s not sure yet if he will run again in the upcoming municipal election.
“And I’m not being cute about that,” he said.
“It’s a big decision. There are a lot of moving parts. My family, first and foremost has to be on board.”
He also said the cost of running is significant in Niagara, having to compete in four ridings.
“To answer your question, there’s a lot to think about.”
The Region revised its expense policy in September 2017.
Part of the policy says members shall make efforts to share travel costs when travelling to the same destination. It does not include a policy for sharing the cost of meals.
Currently the policy says “meals required where circumstances warrant” may be expensed.
Council expense reports can be found at, niagaraopendata.ca.