2018 In Its Own Words

2018 In Its Own Words

January 2: When it is revealed that CAO Tracy Samra had (the very questionable) use of a City vehicle while she was on leave for much of 2017, Councillor Bill Bestwick responds that the issue is “out of my pay grade” even though he is Chair of the Finance and Audit Committee, and, as a Councillor, one of Samra’s employers.

January 8: At a capacity-crowd Committee of the Whole meeting, Councillor Gord Fuller claims a respectful delegation is “threaten[ing] me’, begins yelling at the audience, and threatens to “censure” Mayor Bill McKay. CAO Tracy Samra then unilaterally shuts down the city video feed without informing Council, for almost five minutes. The video is withheld from the public for almost two days.

At the same meeting, Samra admits she has provided a “legal opinion” to Council on at least some members of the Public Engagement Task Force. There is no explanation provided as to why the City is apparently investigating and secretly discussing some residents.

Week of January 8: In a series of in-camera meetings, City Council censures Mayor McKay and Councillor Diane Brennan on various spurious charges, including their refusal to apologize to Tracy Samra over unproven allegations of harassment. In a shocking twist, non-aligned Councillors Ian Thorpe and Sheryl Armstrong vote in support of the Bestwick-led majority on this one motion. UVIC professor Dr. Michael Prince compares it to a “star chamber”, after the secretive and arbitrary courts of medieval England that were used to punish political enemies. The BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs states that the Council has no authority to make “a legal ruling.”

January 11: A month after Tracy Samra recommends the City’s Chief Operating Officer Brad McRae – who she hand-picked – should be fired, the Bestwick-led Council majority supports Samra’s wishes. In an interview with the Nanaimo News-Bulletin, Councillor Jerry Hong admits that he and other Bestwick supporters never challenge Samra’s regular firings of City managers: “If Ms. Samra’s recommendation is to terminate, we…will support that.”

January 15: During a Council meeting Question and Answer session, questions on why the CAO and CFO’s third quarter (Q3) expenses have still not been released are met with silence and deflection by all Councillors. This is on top of a still-unsuccessful months-long battle by the BC Information Commissioner to have the pair’s detailed expenses and corporate credit card receipts from Q1 and Q2 released.

At the same meeting, Tracy Samra admits that the City failed to ensure a contract with anyone to process the kitchen and yard waste now being collected under the expensive new “Sort Toss Roll” waste management program. This is after the city admitted the program was $450,000 over budget, and that garbage taxes were going up between 35 and 66%.

January 16: The City of Nanaimo puts out a news release and video on “Decorum During Council Meetings”, the video heavily featuring Tracy Samra. These state “The City is not required to video record, broadcast or live-stream Council meetings”, and “The City has not redacted any video with the exception of a redaction in 2014”, while not mentioning Samra’s personally turning off the Council video feed for five minutes only the week before. Samra also discusses “when the Chair is unable to maintain decorum,” but fails to mention she has personally been the one violating decorum at a number of Council meetings in recent months.

January 19: Journalist Dominic Jones uncovers that Integrity Group (IG) is suing the City for $52K in unpaid bills. IG, hired in 2015 in an early, failed attempt to resolve the dysfunction within Council, has had invoices ignored for years, apparently because Tracy Samra had blocked payment with the verbal support of Councillors Jerry Hong and Gord Fuller.

January 21: Journalist Dominic Jones uncovers that City CFO Victor Mema has been using the designation “Chartered Public Accountant” since 2015, even though he is not legally allowed to do so as a non-member of the Chartered Professional Accountants of BC. Jones also finds that Nanaimo taxpayers spent over $1100 in 2017 for Mema’s membership in CPA Alberta. City management and Council refuse to comment. Bill Bestwick, Chair of the City Finance and Audit Committee dismisses the issue as “three initials after Mr. Mema’s name.”

January 23: Just three months after the City announces the third “corporate restructuring” in 15 months is complete, it puts out a news release announcing that the fourth restructuring is now complete – this time called a “Phased Reorganization”. Commenting on this in an interview with Nanaimo News Now, renowned municipal expert George Cuff says that the City administration is a “confused organization led by people who haven’t quite figured out their own agenda.” Samra responds that she would like to “educate and inform” the former President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (who has also published 7 books and 400 articles on municipal governance over his 42-year career.)

January 29: Tracy Samra accepts a CAO job with the Shishalh First Nation, to begin in mid-February, but does not inform Council, or offer her resignation. City staff are ecstatic, with one telling journalist Dominic Jones, “A lot of staff will be having celebratory drinks tonight!”

Shishalh First Nations announces the move in a news release on January 31, but at least some of Council have still not been informed even as Samra begins packing up her office at City Hall.

January 31: In front of multiple City staff, an irate Tracy Samra allegedly makes serious threats against some members of Council, City staff, local journalist Dominic Jones, and others, is then arrested by the RCMP, and spends the night in jail. She is released on February 1 with conditions, after having her City email account shut down and building pass cancelled, and being banned from entering all city buildings. RCMP officers are later seen removing boxes of records from City Hall. Jerry Hong initially claims the officers are there for a “public safety committee meeting.”

By February 2, Shishalh First Nation has removed Tracy Samra’s name from the public portion of their website.

February 3: While no official statements or comments have been made publicly regarding the shocking news of the last few days, the City of Nanaimo instead puts out a news release claiming that “the City has, in practice, permitted elected officials and staff to incur…personal expenses on City-issued purchase cards and credit cards…there has been no defalcation, fraud or misappropriation of City funds…” Within minutes on social media, journalist Dominic Jones posts screen shots of a City document that contradicts this: “Using the card for personal charges could be considered misappropriation of funds and could result in corrective action up to and including termination of employment.” With Samra gone, many question who was behind this highly questionable news release, which is removed and reposted multiple times over coming days and weeks.

Months later, an FOI release reveals that the news release was written by Tracy Samra and ordered released by Victor Mema, and that multiple City staff complained in writing about it being “untrue.” The FOI also reveals that repeated attempts by City staff to stop the release and then remove the false statement from the City website were blocked by Victor Mema, Bill Bestwick, and Gord Fuller.

Early February: Without Tracy Samra to control them, Councillors Kipp and Fuller lose any final restraint in their dealings with the public. Over a two-week period on social media, Fuller repeatedly accuses a local resident of being connected to a “mercenary killing machine”, while Kipp responds to a media query with a long rant that appears to discuss African water shortages, US racism, and other indecipherable issues, including: “Yes there are causal links to the mess of power drunken dumb-mock-crazy, you just ether can not see the linkage or chose not to accept. [sic]” The outbursts lead to extensive regional media coverage.

February 5: Five days after Samra’s arrest, the City finally releases a statement announcing it, but without mentioning her name. Later, at the City’s weekly Council meeting, there is no mention made of recent events, who is the City’s Acting CAO, or whether other security or personnel changes have been made in response to these recent events.

February 7: The BC Prosecution Service announces that Michael Klein, QC, has been appointed as special prosecutor for the Samra case. Samra’s official employment status with the City of Nanaimo remains unknown.

February 9: The Shishalh First Nation states that it “regrets to announce that contrary to its notice dated Jan. 31, 2018, Tracy Samra will not be the new chief administrative officer…”

February 19: After voting in January in favour of a fully provincially-funded $7M supportive housing project in Chase River, Council flip-flops and votes against it, in the face of neighbourhood pressure. Gord Fuller claims it is “no fault of Council”, even though it is Council’s failure to vote on alternative acceptable locations that dooms the project and loses the City the funding entirely – the only municipality in BC to do so.

Later in the same meeting, when discussing funding for a security patrol, Bill Bestwick states, “I support it, but I don’t know what I am supporting to be honest.”

February 26: A Freedom of Information request to the City of Nanaimo reveals that the 2017 Hometown Hockey weekend did not cost $320,000 – 23 times the national average – but rather cost $470,000 – 36 times the national average. When asked to explain this by NanaimoNewsNow, Bestwick blames City staff: “At no time was I provided a concern or cost over runs by staff.” City records later show that the original budget for Hometown Hockey had been $5,000 before Bestwick took over as Chair of the organizing committee.

Later the same day, when criticized at a public Council meeting by the regional Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Paul Hasselback, for the city’s “inaction” on the opioid crisis, Bestwick claims the City cannot afford to deal with the issue.

March 1: In an interview with CBC Radio, Dr. Hasselback again criticizes Council’s “inaction” on the opioid crisis and points out that “Nanaimo’s overdose death rate…is 50% higher than the rest of the province.” On social media, Jerry Hong blames “the BC government”, “our MLA”, and “the last Council”.

March 2: Chief Financial Officer and Acting Chief Administrative Officer Victor Mema is suspended pending an investigation into unknown allegations. The City responds with an untitled news release that only mentions “some key members of staff”, and does not mention Mema’s name, position, or who is Acting CFO or Acting CAO in his absence.

March 5: In a Nanaimo News-Bulletin article rife with surreal and extremely troubling quotes from various Councillors, the City confirms that Victor Mema is on “leave” and has been replaced by well-respected long-time City employee Laura Mercer, who actually holds a BC CPA designation. Mayor McKay states that “Our CAO is Tracy Samra and she is on leave. We don’t want to forget that in any way,” while Bill Bestwick says “We need help, so let’s get KPMG…to come in and run it for us…” Bestwick fails to mention that, with KPMG having recently audited the finance department, it would be a conflict if they also ran it. Finally, Gord Fuller says the province should not intercede in Nanaimo’s ongoing dysfunction because the province refused to intercede in 2016. Fuller claims “we were denied then” when in fact Fuller and six other Councillors had specifically asked the province to not intercede in 2016.

March 8: The Province of BC disallows $9M in City sports upgrades that Council wanted to pay for through development cost charges. Councillor Bill Bestwick, who had championed most of the projects, claims to NanaimoNewsNow that “I don’t know where the monies are going to come from,” but a senior City staffer confirmed the funds “have to come from general revenue…taxation.”

March 16: Two months after the City’s Chief Operating Officer Brad McRae is fired by Council, he files a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal for wrongful dismissal.

March 18: It is revealed that the City is looking to hire a third-party travel agency to manage the City’s relatively small $200K travel budget. Bizarrely, Mayor Bill McKay supports the plan, saying “the idea was supported by the [now suspended] Chief Administrative Officer…[and he] does not believe there has been “any misuse” of city money allocated for travel…by city staff or councillors.” A senior City manager was caught in early 2017 misusing City funds for personal travel, as was reported by journalist Dominic Jones just ten days earlier.

March 19: In response to a “tent city” set up on the lawn of City Hall, Council votes to spend $350K on various social programs. During the Council meeting debate on the issue, Bill Bestwick states three times that “it’s just money.”

March 21: Multiple media across BC report that suspended City of Nanaimo CAO Tracy Samra is being charged with “fear of injury or damage by another person” under the Criminal Code of Canada, in regards threats against nine Nanaimo city staff, former city staff, Councillors, and a journalist.

March 23: Journalist Dominic Jones discovers that the City’s 2017 legal fees exceeded $850K, hundreds of thousands of dollars above the average for similar-sized BC cities. A few days later, Jones find out another $31K in legal fees was hidden elsewhere in the City’s 2016 financial reports, bringing the total to almost $900K.

April 4: Council proposes a City budget that – along with large tax increases across the board – includes a 123% budget increase for the CAO’s office. (This is 9 weeks after the CAO’s arrest and suspension, but she remains on full pay.) In what has become a routine performance, Jim Kipp storms out of the meeting in a rage.

April 5: In the face of aggressive criticism from some members of Council, the seven-member senior staff management team – who were trying to lead City Hall in the absence of the suspended CAO for the two months – quits. Gord Fuller claims he did not even know of the team’s existence: “ [it] came as surprise to me because was not aware of a “committee” [sic].”

April 23: After seven months of planning and numerous Council meetings on the issue, the Bestwick-led Council majority suddenly rejects the 2018 City Budget three weeks before the provincially mandate deadline and blames City staff. Councillor Bestwick claims “we have millions upon millions upon millions in war chests”, while Councillor Fuller admits “I don’t have a clue where the options are.”

April 26: The Nanaimo News-Bulletin reveals that suspended CFO Victor Mema had charged 11 personal flights to his corporate credit card in 2016 and 2017.

May 2: A scathing KPMG audit of City finances finds “serious deficiencies”, “questionable activities”, and “retaliation” against City staff who complained to Council of the financial wrongdoing of CAO Tracy Samra and CFO Victor Mema. The Bestwick-led Council majority – Fuller, Hong, Yoachim, and Kipp – who hired Samra, supported her unconditionally for three years, and ignored multiple complaints from staff, begin a concerted public attack of the audit on May 9.

May 8: Over three months after Samra was arrested, the Bestwick-led Council majority votes to delay a hearing on her future with the City. She continues to receive full pay – $60,000 to date.

On the same day, it is discovered that – over two months after being suspended – CFO Victor Mema is attending an international finance conference in St. Louis, Missouri, while continuing to publicly represent himself as “Chief Financial Officer/Deputy City Manager at City of Nanaimo.” The Bestwick-led Council majority continues to delay a hearing on his future with the City, but both Councillors Bestwick and Fuller defend Mema’s attendance at the conference.

May 14: Almost two and a half months – and tens of thousands of dollars – after being suspended with pay, Council finally votes to fire CFO Victor Mema. The city refuses to release any details, including how much money he still owes taxpayers and if the City will be launching civil action against him, but it is confirmed that Gord Fuller did not support the firing.

May 17: Robert Fuller, Gord Fuller’s brother, leaks the scathing KPMG audit on three local Facebook groups, but claims he did not get it from his brother. The audit shows that, since 2010, only two City employees have repeatedly used their corporate credit cards for personal use – Victor Mema and Director of Parks and Recreation Richard Harding. The audit also shows that Tracy Samra “generally approved” Mema’s credit card statements, which included 76 personal charges worth $14,600. Samra remains on fully paid leave. In the face of legal threats, Robert Fuller pulls the document down the next day.

May 18: An FOI release reveals that Bill Bestwick had recently asked if all FOI applicants could be charged fees (which is against the law in BC), and that Bestwick had stated “these requests are and have become an obsession with a minority of activists locally…The toxicity perpetuated by the all consumed citizen needs addressed [sic].”

May 24: Journalist Dominic Jones uncovers that CAO Tracy Samra incurred thousands of dollars in personal charges to her City credit card, including a veterinarian bill, multiple personal charges during her many sick leaves, and a $513 meal in Vancouver. Fired CFO Victor Mema had authorized Samra’s personal expenses, while Samra authorized Mema’s, apparently justifying a recent KPMG audit’s concern of the “opportunity of collusion between the two parties.”

The same day, journalist Dominic Abassi uncovers that Samra had given Victor Mema $63,000 in bonuses and pay raises in 2017, bringing his salary up to $224,000.

May 25: Almost four months after being arrested and going on leave with full pay – and under the weight of an increasing onslaught of damning evidence against Samra – the City finally announces that Samra is “no longer employed”. The City refuses to release any details, but it is confirmed that six of nine Councillors voted to fire her with cause – with Jim Kipp absent and only Bestwick and Fuller continuing to support her until the bitter end.