Vancouver staff junket costs $18,540

the hotel at mandalay bay
"Nice flash drive" – City tech staff get great digs in Las Vegas

The allure. The luxury. The exclusivity. The seduction. The indulgence. The experience. The Hotel at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas sounds like a pretty nice place according to their website. Now Vancouver taxpayers only have to think about is –

The bill.

An avid reader of CityCaucus.com tipped us off to the five members of Vancouver’s IT (information technology and web) department attended the Web Trends Engage conference and the concurrent HDI tech service conference early last month in Las Vegas, NV. We heard that it was going to cost a lot for taxpayers, and they weren’t wrong. The bill for sending 5 employees on this US training junket comes to $18,540.

According to an FOI request by CityCaucus.com, those attending the HDI conference got to stay at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, one of the luxury inns in Sin City. Other staff attending the Engage event stayed at the Red Rock Casino Hotel & Spa.

Each staff had their costs covered for conference registration fees, on average $2150 CAD after exchange. The trip was originally booked February 2nd, during a period where it was increasingly clear that budget cutbacks were coming. In spite of this, very little was done to acknowledge the City’s looming financial crisis.

In an email dated February 20, 2009 Connie Zelter, Vancouver’s Manager of Customer Relations had the following exchange with Shari Wallace, IT Dept. Acting Director, which indicated that staff were aware of tight budgets:

From: Zelter, Connie
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 1:05 PM
To: Wallace, Shari
Subject: FW: Invoice – ZELTER – 03APR – Training Change Request

In light of the training plan cut backs, I feel I should support my branch by cutting back my own training. It will cost only $50 to drop the Knowledge Base training in April, saving $2600 on budget. For me, it will spend more time pumping Janet on what I want her to get out of the course before/after, and doing som research on my own through webinars, etc. I will fly out of the Monday morning and attend the conference, so the $50 is just in changing the airline date. No penalty for changing hotel dates or dropping part of registration.

Hope to get this in today as there are only 3 seats left on the plane Monday morning.

Connie

Zelter was one of the staff staying at The Mandalay Hotel, along with her colleagues Janet Haines and Harry Keshishian. Red Rock guests included staffers Marianne Hammond & Lisa Hildebrandt.

The two staff at the Web Trends training session were there to learn more about the high end analytics program the City uses to understand their web traffic. Vancouver.ca is often criticized for being poor to search and navigate in spite of the gloss of the new home page. We can hope that staff learn from Web Trends where the City’s site falls short in this increasingly web-focused age.

The other three staff attended seminars on customer relations (one with a title, "Build the Best Team: Soup to Nuts," cost $395) and others with a focus on phone service, possibly in preparation for this summer’s roll out of 311. The new customer-friendly 311 service was adopted at the urging of former City Manager Judy Rogers and passed by the previous NPA council against howls of protest by the Vision/COPE opposition.

While staff training and seminars are not out of the ordinary, governments and private businesses large and small have cut back on these perks during the global economic slowdown. The City of Vancouver enacted a hiring freeze earlier this year alongside a record 8% property tax increase.

It’s arguable if this kind of training required sending staff offsite to the USA, or if webinars (web-based training) could have accomplished the same learning goals as heading down to Vegas. We do know that the average homeowner (including condo, townhouse & detached properties) in Vancouver pays around $1800 annually for their property tax, which means that at least ten households needed to save up for a year to cover the cost this trip.

We’re sure that Mayor Robertson and Mayor "Geoff" Meggs will have a response as to why this money was spent, and they’ll be quick to respond once they return from their junket to Oregon and Washington.

UPDATE: CKNW covers this story, as does News1130 and The Province

White Rock councillor given the boot by judge for lying
Ballem to City staff: use FOI if you want to know

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  • Terry

    What is the carbon footprint on sending five city employees to Vegas on a jumbo plane? I thought Gregor wanted to make us the greenest city in the world? What a sham. I won’t even comment on whether this investment of $18k was of any value.

  • Tom

    The allure. The luxury. The exclusivity. The seduction. The indulgence. The experience
    Wow, that is all everyone likes.

  • Bob Hawkins

    What were they thinking?

  • C. Zaveier

    Let’s try some simple arithmetic here: As citizens who’re often in need of facts available at city hall, we don’t believe $18,500 is an excessive amount for training five new employees in a brand new and sorely needed communications system. The amount works out to approx $3,700 per trainee including $2,000+conference registration,air fare and per diem for for public servants who are going to clear the fuzz out of city hall’s antiquated methods of relating facts to citizens. As self-employed professionals our experience is that once conference registrations are confirmed there is great difficulty retrieving the cost through cancellation. CX

  • D. Jones

    I believe the five employees are not new, especially from the announced hiring freeze.
    As self-employed professionals, it is at your own expense for upgrades and not the tax payers. Training should be done at management’s discretion to control the cost of travel. There are plenty of alternatives in the area for hotels and flights.

  • self-employed professional

    In a privatized environment, the ultimate goal is to cut cost to achieve maximum performance. As civil servants, the same idea should apply. There is a certain level of responsibility owed to the public as funds are collected from everyone; single-parent low income families and seniors are amongst the taxed.
    If this training trip is so essential to the operations to our city, then the arithmetic is not so simple here.
    The sorely needed communications system is already deployed, why are management strategies and training done after deployment? Shouldn’t the training take place before the start of the project instead of after the system is implemented?
    If this is a major part of the training, were members of the 311 project sent? The current project was soft launched in February 2009 (http://www.citycaucus.com/2009/02/good-morning-vancouver—welcome-to-the-new-world-of-311), the technology and management structure should already be in place.. now a separate department is involved in the training, only to relay information back to the primary responsible personnel on that project?
    It’s been almost 2 months since the training in Las Vegas. Was this deployed to the relevant departments? If this were a major part of the 311 project, then the 311 employees must have lacked the management and training since the soft launch!
    As self-employed professionals we understand that inefficiency in a system can render an operation useless. The minimum wage for a call representative is $22.15 (http://vancouver.ca/humanresources/jobs/09-0036O2P.htm), reporting to at least a team lead and a manager from the project. If there is insufficient training for staff, then the tax dollars thrown into the ocean would be:
    $22.15/hr x 35 hr/week x 8 weeks = $6,202 spent on an entry level staff without Las Vegas training.
    There are currently 19 call representatives (http://vancouver.ca/qf_wac/qfEmployeeList.exe/EmployeesInOrgUnit?detailid=3863):
    $6,202 x 19 reps = $117,838.
    Suppose without the proper training, they are only able to operate at 50% of their targeted performance, then the city must have thrown away $58,919 into the ocean..
    this coming from a self-employed professional.

  • Dennis

    In the Province article, the municipal replied that:
    “We need to be able to train our staff,” she said. “We did not have the training we needed.”
    Why wouldn’t the Manager of Customer Relations have the training needed already? Is the manager a new hire?

  • cityhall worker

    To clear up one misconception – the training was not for 311. Any web work benefits the city overall.