EDITORIAL: Government expenses at whose expense?

When elected officials start expensing thousands on frivolous things, it shows how easy it is to abuse an expense account.

Expense accounts are useful things in both business and government. After all, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect elected officials to pay out of their own pocket for meals and other expenses incurred while conducting the business of government.

But when elected officials start expensing thousands to hire a limousine for a day or more than $10,000 to hire a photographer to document their activities, it shows how easy it is to abuse an expense account.

Abuse of expense accounts is not something that only happens at the highest levels. In 2005, Sean Harvey, then the mayor of Vernon, resigned after an investigation by our sister paper, the Vernon Morning Star, revealed he had falsified some of his expenses for lavish meals and trips. The possibilities rise as the level of government does; Harvey’s breach of trust amounted to about $13,000 — about double what the Environment Ministry spent on a photographer to document Minister Catherine McKenna during the climate summit in Paris last fall.

Ultimately, it comes down to the taxpayers to decide what is reasonable and what isn’t. Too often, though, that public input only comes after some outrageous expense has already been incurred.

Expenses, from our local politicians through to the federal, are available to any citizen through a Freedom of Information request, and the City of Penticton publishes total expenses for mayor and council in the annual Statement of Information.

But making those expense public on an ongoing, as-they-come-in, basis would not only show patterns of over-expensing before it gets out of hand, it might make politicians think twice before they incurred an exorbitant expense.

Local expenses are not out of control — the highest in 2015 was Mayor Andrew Jakubeit at $5,657 — but we wonder how many of our seven council members would be willing to make their expenses truly public.