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MLAs meet in B.C. to talk pensions
Cheaper to meet in Vancouver than bring 'highly paid consultants' north to discuss retirement fund, says legislative assembly clerk

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A contingent of five MLAs, three territorial government staffers, an ex-MLA and a government law clerk spent the first half of this week talking about MLA pensions while staying at a posh hotel in downtown Vancouver.

NNSL photo/graphic

Five MLAs, three government staffers, an ex-MLA and a government law clerk stayed at this hotel this week, the Wedgewood Hotel and Spa in downtown Vancouver. It bills itself as a luxury boutique hotel. The delegation is in Vancouver to meet with money managers to discuss the pension plan for MLAs. The trip cost about $14,000, according to the territorial government. - photo from Wedgewood Hotel and Spa website

The delegation is staying at the Wedgewood Hotel, which bills itself as a "luxury boutique hotel and spa."

The three staff members arrived at the hotel Sunday night and the MLAs and others checked in on Monday, according to Tim Mercer, clerk for the legislative assembly, who is one of the three staffers on the trip. All of them were due to arrive back in Yellowknife today. Mercer said the approximate cost of the entire trip is about $14,000.

The MLAs are in Vancouver as members of the legislative assembly's governance body, the board of management (BOM). They are: chair and legislative assembly Speaker Jackson Lafferty, Finance Minister Robert C. McLeod, Transportation Minister Wally Schumann, Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne and Frederick Blake, MLA for the Mackenzie Delta. Also on the trip is former Hay River MLA Paul Delorey who sits on the pension committee representing former MLAs, and a legislative assembly law clerk who is also legal counsel to the MLA pension plans.

The trip was approved at a board of management meeting on Sept 22. The board is in Vancouver to review the most recent valuation report for MLA pension plans, adopt a funding policy, review the plans' investment policies and receive reports from the plans' investment managers.

"All of the expenses for these meetings are picked up by the pension plan itself," said Mercer.

"There are no public funds used for these meetings. The pension plan has assets of about $50 million. Members contribute about nine percent of their (gross) pay to these pension funds. About 30 years ago when the plans were first established there was a cash injection from the government to get them started but since then the GNWT and the legislative assembly have not made any contributions to the plan for about 20 years. It's self-financing."

Mercer conceded that ultimately it was NWT taxpayers who funded the initial investment into the MLAs' pension plan. He added this is the second meeting this year that the board of management has had with the pension managers. The last meeting was in Calgary earlier this spring.

There are 19 current and 47 former MLAs involved in the pension plan, according to Mercer.

He also stated by e-mail that they are getting a government rate at the hotel.

"The government rate at the Wedgewood is $199 per night," he stated. "Although this is still higher than we have paid in the past it is not out of line for hotels in downtown Vancouver."

Mercer stated any other options for holding these meetings would have cost more.

"The alternative to this would be to bring nine or 10 highly-paid consultants to Yellowknife for two to three days which would have cost the plan significantly more than what it's costing," said Mercer by phone.

"The costs associated with managing this plan ... Are more than reasonable."

Yellowknifer asked Vanthuyne whether he thought it was hypocritical for a government that has stated it must rein in its costs to be spending money on travel and hotels so MLAs could talk about their pension plans.

"The legislative assembly has this responsibility," said Vanthuyne.

"BOM members have this responsibility to manage the funds. It's not unreasonable to meet with pension fund managers. Either we pay to come down here or them to come up and we put them in hotels. This isn't stuff you just meet over, over the phone. We have binders worth of information and it's practical to meet on a face-to-face basis."

Kieron Testart, MLA for Kam Lake, said he wants to hear from taxpayers before he passes judgment on the trip.

"We have to be responsible. The board is very responsible," said Testart.

"There is a reason to meet outside the NWT otherwise it wouldn't be approved."

Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said, however, she wants to know why these meetings must be held in Vancouver.

"I think that we always have to be careful about how we spend government money because this is taxpayers' money," said Green.

"I don't know what the rationale is for meeting in Vancouver. This is not their first out-of-town meeting during the 18th Legislative Assembly."

Green added if citizens believe this is a waste of taxpayer money, they should contact their MLA and let them know that.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly, who was with Green this week at the government's anti-poverty round table in Inuvik, said the pension funds are there to attract good people to run for office.

"Once people are finished in the legislative assembly you are not eligible for employment insurance so we want to take care of people we have given the responsibility to make decisions on behalf of us all," said O'Reilly.

"At the same time we want to be careful with the money that's spent to manage the fund which is inevitably public funds."

According to numbers provided by the legislative assembly, a one-term regular MLA is entitled to a pension of about $9,500 a year at age 60. A five-term MLA who had been a cabinet minister for four or five terms would be entitled to a pension of about $97,000 per year at age 60.

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