Surrey Mayor questioned for quiet trip overseas on taxpayers' dime
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and staff flew to Israel on a trade mission earlier this week without announcements, news releases, or even the mention of the word “Israel” in city council motions.
It was only after questions from CTV News that the mayor’s office confirmed the trip late Monday, and then sent a press release Tuesday morning.
“Any travel issues like that should be at open council,” former city councilor Judy Higginbotham told CTV News, saying that it is unusual not to debate a trip that size in public. “As it stands it sounds like you have to read the fine print to know what’s going on.”
Watts phoned CTV News from Israel to say that there was no attempt to hide the trip, which she says is to connect universities, health care facilities and technology companies to innovative counterparts in Israel.
“I think you’re trying to make something out of nothing,” Watts said. “There’s no intention not to mention Israel. Everybody knows that Israel is cutting edge, especially for health technology.”
The mayor and two staffers left on Dec 9 and are due back Dec 21. Neither the mayor nor city staff could say how much the trip cost.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation found a trip in October to Colombia, South America, to bid for an international softball competition by Watts and Surrey Councillor Tom Gill cost $11,000. That included $3,600 in business-class plane tickets for both of them.
CTF spokesman Jordan Bateman said it’s concerning that the trip to Israel follows so closely from that Colombian trip.
“It’s shocking that a mayor would go overseas on a trade mission and no one seems to know. Only after the media is poking around does anyone seem to know. Why not tell everyone if you’re proud of it?” Bateman asked.
The trip was brought up in the “Investment and Innovation Committee” in a motion on Dec 2 that approves “Mayor Watts’ participation in a Health Technologies business mission related to Innovation Boulevard in December 2013.”
The chair of the committee, Surrey Councillor Bruce Haynes, told CTV News that even though there was no mention of the word “Israel” or any expenses, the councilors voting knew what the motion was for.
“It was really a formality at that point to get the trip approved,” Haynes said. He said he wasn’t aware when the flights were purchased, given that the holidays can be an expensive time to travel and it’s cheaper to get them earlier.
A round trip ticket to Israel on Air Canada would cost about $5,500 per person, according to Air Canada’s website.
The trip also included Dr. Andy Webb, from Fraser Health, but his air fare was paid for by a conference he was attending in London, said a Fraser Health spokesperson. SFU didn’t return calls about how its faculty member Dr. Ryan Darcy paid for the trip.
Attending on behalf of UBC was Dr. Howard Feldman, the executive associate dean of research for UBC’s faculty of medicine. His expenses were paid by the Faculty of Medicine’s research budget, a spokesperson said.
Other representatives of technology companies, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs paid their own way, Watts said.
Surrey will partner with a prestigious neuro technology consortium created by Israel’s president, Israel Brain Technologies, and a representative of the consortium said he looked forward to working with Surrey, according to Surrey’s press release, which was sent out at about 11 a.m.Tuesday.
Higginbotham blamed the lack of transparency on a byproduct of the entire Surrey council consisting of one party, whose members talk directly to each other rather than relying on democratic institutions like city council to make decisions.
Vancouver will consider if councilor Tim Stevenson will represent the city at the upcoming Olympics in Sochi at a Wednesday council meeting.
Last year, Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan faced questions after spending $12,000 for a five-day trip to Arizona.