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Cell-phone charges run up school trustee expense claims

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees rang up nearly a third of all expenses claims for the past year on their cell phones, according to previously missing reports now posted on the board’s website.

The quarterly expense reports show the 11 trustees billed taxpayers $33,077.34 between December 2011 and November 2012, with the biggest portion, $10,048.77, for cell-phone use.

Other large-ticket items included trustee-related conferences at $8,906.15, travel at $8,525.90 and Internet service at $3,412.96 – the latter listed as “potentially ineligible” by provincial guidelines.

The two student trustee positions submitted a further $3,678.44 in expenses, $2,467.49 of them for cell phones, with one student running up an $800.25 bill for the period of June to August 2012, when school is mostly closed for the summer.

Among regular trustees, Ward 6’s Laura Peddle led expense claims at $5,524.35, a bill including $2,244.44 in cell phone charges – more than double any other trustee.

She was one of four trustees to claim home phone charges – also listed as “potentially ineligible” by the province – submitting a $646.97 bill. Only her cell number is listed on the board website.

Ward 7 trustee Lillian Orban was next at $4,575.36 in expenses, with travel, at $1,429.08, her biggest bill. She claimed charges of $692.01 for her home phone, $707.34 for her cell and $692.03 for her Internet service. Only her home number is listed on the website.

Alex Johnstone, trustee for wards 11 and 12, ran up the fewest charges at $972.61, all of it for cell-phone use.

Dundas’s Jessica Brennan stood next on the frugality list with $1,073.35 in claims, including $325.98 for her home phone. She lists a home message line on the board website. Ward 8’s Wes Hicks followed at $1,789.80.

Unlike Peddle and Orban, the low spenders didn’t attend any trustee conferences, which added about $1,100 to each of the Mountain trustees’ expenses.

Three of the four quarterly reports for the period in question had been missing from the board’s website until a Hamilton Community News inquiry on Jan. 4 led them to be posted online on Jan. 21.

The reports had also not been presented quarterly to trustees at their committee of the whole meetings, as required by trustees’ own policy.

The board attributed the slipup to a staff change in the trustee liaison position responsible for the reports.

Allowed expenses under the policy include those for travel to and from board meetings, a home phone, Internet connection, cell phone and professional development, like trustee-related conferences.

Forbidden ones include alcohol and any expenses “of a personal or political nature.”

The policy stipulates that trustees will be provided a home computer and printer, home phone line, cell phone or “wireless communication device, high speed Internet service and office software.

Most trustees don’t submit bills for home phones.

Ministry of Education guidelines list examples of “potentially ineligible” claims that include “reimbursement for household expenses such as a home phone line or an internet connection if other viable alternatives have already been provided.”

Seven of 11 trustees submitted Internet charges, with only Johnstone, Brennan, chair Tim Simmons and vice-chair Robert Barlow not doing so.

Ward 5’s Todd White was the only one not to claim cell-phone charges. He also didn’t submit a home phone bill but claimed $668.24 for his Internet hookup.

Board chair Tim Simmons said trustees drafted their “made at home” policy in 2009 and are scheduled to review it next year.

The existing policy takes into account the wide range in trustees’ ages and their comfort level with newer technologies, he said.

“That’s why we exceeded the guidelines a little bit there,” Simmons said.

“It’s really a personal decision on the part of trustees on how they want to use their communication technologies, but what’s important to the board is that everybody’s following the board policy.”

The reports are available at http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/aboutus/trustees/expenses/.

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