KINGSTON — City councillors struggled with a move to greater autonomy by the city’s economic development agency.
The Kingston Economic Development Corporation informed council on Tuesday night about changes to how it plans to appoint future members to its board of directors.
The 12-member KEDCO board is to still include three city councillors and the mayor, and the agency’s nomination committee is to include a city councillor.
But future board appointments of the remaining eight directors at large will no longer go before the city’s nominations committee and city council for approval.
The changes will make KEDCO similar to other city-funded external agencies, such as Tourism Kingston, explained Lanie Hurdle, the city’s chief administrative officer.
The idea of giving KEDCO more independence did not sit well with some councillors, who remembered the agency’s somewhat controversial past.
“Does history suggest that KEDCO should be allowed to have more leeway than it already has?” asked Kings Town District Coun. Rob Hutchison.
Hutchison reminded council of some of the suspect spending in the past and added that at one point it was suggested that economic development should become solely a city responsibility.
In 2019, documents revealed through a Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request into KEDCO’s finances between 2010 and 2015 showed a pattern of questionable spending.
The request, filed in 2016 by the not-for-profit Friends of Kingston, revealed “a lot of activity at local restaurants and bars, hospitality at food and beverage, at sporting and entertainment events, adult entertainment venues, golf clubs and officers’ messes,” current KEDCO chief executive officer Donna Gillespie said at a 2019 news conference.
“We are not the organization we were 15 years ago,” KEDCO board chair Gillian Watters said Tuesday night.
The agency underwent a major change of leadership in 2015 and followed up in 2016 with a broad review of its services and policies, adding more internal oversight.
“The point of this, by removing us from the city nominations process, is just efficient governance,” Watters added.
Late last year, city council deferred its approval of five appointments to KEDCO’s board of directors so they could be given additional scrutiny.
A week later, city council reviewed all 49 nominations for the positions, approving three of the five original names and swapping out two.
The changes to KEDCO’s nomination process was presented to council on Tuesday night as an information item only, and no council input was requested.
“How could it be that we were shut out on this particular question?” asked Portsmouth District Coun. Bridget Doherty. “It seems somehow wrong that is an information only policy.
“KEDCO decided to shut out a city process without councillors making a discussion about it.”
“I find this a little bit frustrating because this will be an organization that depends heavily upon city funding, and we have no say on the selection,” Williamsville District Coun. Jim Neill added.
“Is our only control over KEDCO now going to be at budget, which I would suggest is a dangerous situation?”
During 2020 budget discussions, city council considered a motion, described by one councillor as “Sith-like,” that would have withheld half of the $1.44 million KEDCO received from the city.
Council voted down the motion, and KEDCO received its full budget allocation and agreed to follow through on a pledge to create a new strategic plan.
Alan McLeod of the city’s legal department told councillors they would have the opportunity to scrutinize KEDCO’s budget annually and a service level agreement is already in place toensure the agency meets its obligation to the city.