Tri-Cities’ Metro Vancouver board members spent more than $106,000 on travel in 2023

Metro Vancouver board members have recently come under fire for their travel expenses, and local Tri-Cities representatives were some of the biggest spenders.

In total, six Tri-Cities’ mayors and councillors spent more than $106,000 in 2023, with some taking expensive trips to conferences in Australia, Ireland, Finland, Chicago, and Boston.

International travel costs have been highlighted by a group of city councillors criticizing Metro Vancouver’s governance structure amid billions in cost overruns on two planned wastewater treatment plants in North Vancouver and Richmond.

New Westminster Coun. Daniel Fontaine described Metro Vancouver as having “almost an addiction to travel” in a Global News interview.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the people who are making these decisions on these international flights, and the people who are paying the bills,” Fontaine said.

Out of Metro Vancouver’s 41-member board, total expenditures amounted to $227,000, but the top five spenders – three of whom hail from the Tri-Cities – spent nearly $153,000, or 67 percent.

Board expenditures have spiked over 60 percent since in 2019.

Delta Mayor George Harvie, who served as Metro Vancouver’s board chair before being ousted by his council in May, cancelled his trip to five-day conference on diking systems in Amsterdam following scrutiny.

Harvie racked up more than $31,938 in travel expenses in 2023, having the third highest on the board. He had already spent $32,000 in 2024, and his flight to Europe would have cost an additional $5,300 per Global News.

But two Tri-Cities mayors, Anmore’s John McEwen and Port Coquitlam’s Brad West, outspent Harvey in 2023, and both are currently attending that Amsterdam conference.

McEwen, who serves as Metro Vancouver’s vice chair, spent more than any other member last year, with travel bills totaling $49,239.

In a statement to the Dispatch, McEwen said 2023 was the first year Metro Vancouver board members were able to start attending conferences regularly since COVID-19.

“The current level of travel is on par with pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “However, travel costs have increased overall as airline, hotel, and related expenses have risen due to inflation and other economic factors.”

McEwen added his expenses also include trips to lobby provincial and federal governments to try to secure subsidies for major infrastructure and housing projects, including $250 million for the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant Project in Richmond.

Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West, who chairs Metro Vancouver’s finance committee and vice chairs the mayors committee, had the second highest spending on the board at $33,247.

West described 2023 as a “unique, one-off year,” as he was asked to attend a higher number of conferences by Metro Vancouver. “My Metro expenses have always been very low,” he said.

The most expensive trips taken by McEwen and West involved international conferences: the 2023 Asia Pacific Cities Summit in Brisbane, Australia; and the United Cities and Local Governments Culture Summit in Dublin, Ireland.

Airfare and expenses for the trips amounted to over $51,000 between the two mayors.

McEwen, who was a speaker at the Australian conference, said local governments are facing challenges with housing, resilience, and climate action, and the conference felt “particularly relevant,” noting that almost 1,200 delegates from 171 cities attended.

“As chair of the regional parks committee, I have also been working to keep abreast of trends and learnings related to parks and how they can support the health and wellbeing of residents while being integrated with reconciliation with the local First Nations,” he said.

The fifth biggest spender on Metro Vancouver’s board was Coquitlam Coun. Craig Hodge, vice chair of the zero waste committee, who spent nearly $18,200 on trips to Finland and the U.S.

Hodge spent nearly $9,200 to attend the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki, and almost $5,000 attending the Wastecon 2023 in Boston.

McEwen and Port Coquitlam Coun. Darrell Penner also attended the Special Park Districts Forum in Chicago, spending over $9,000 between the two.

While West’s travel expenses prior to 2023 were not significant, only spending $3,200 to attend two other U.S. conferences since joining Metro Vancouver’s board in 2019, Port Coquitlam’s former mayor, Greg Moore, spent more than $24,000 in 2018.

The same cannot be said for McEwen, who spent nearly $20,000 on travel in 2019, including a trip to Germany at a cost of more than $8,500.

Hodge, meanwhile, spent more than $18,000 between 2018 and 2023, including conference trips to San Diego, Portland and Phoenix.

Fontaine and three other councillors, Linda Annis of Surrey, Kash Heed of Richmond, Ahmed Yousef of Maple Ridge have called on the Premier David Eby to carry out a governance review of Metro Vancouver, including for the board to be elected in the future.

Board members are currently appointed by local governments, and Fontaine said the structure leads to a lack of accountability to taxpayers.

Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Tri-Cities Dispatch