Pinehouse Mayor’s giant shrug on Freedom of Information and the abuse behind it

In January 2019, Mike Natomagan, mayor of the Northern Village of Pinehouse, was quoted in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, “To be quite honest, living in (one of the poorest regions of Canada), do we care about freedom of information? Not really.”  It was a giant shrug to the Village’s responsibilities under the Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and a reckless response to the provincial Ministry of Government Relations’ current independent investigation by Neil Robertson, QC, into its failure to comply.  At the same time, the Chief Administrative Officer for the Village has boldly declared that “Pinehouse has nothing to hide.”

D’Arcy Hande’s most recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request related to the salary and expenses of Pinehouse Mayor Mike Natomagan.  Although living in Saskatoon, Hande has been working over a period of years with a small group, including some from Pinehouse itself, trying to uncover what seems to be a long pattern of administrative abuse (or maybe worse) in the Village.  He explains, “Many questions have arisen since 2010 about the secret dealings the Village Council has had with the nuclear and uranium industry, and how those deals might negatively impact the residents there.  Millions of dollars of industry money have flowed into Village coffers.  Where has it gone? From the very beginning, the Mayor and other Village officials have refused to be transparent.  That secrecy raises our suspicions even more.”

Although it has its failings, the provincial FOI legislation does provide a mechanism for insisting on transparency and accountability from municipal governments.  Upwards of 20 FOI requests have been submitted to Pinehouse village since 2012, most of which have not received the required detailed response.  After dealing with several complaints about the Pinehouse administration’s serial lack of compliance, Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner found in his November 2018 report that the Mayor and senior staff have routinely obstructed due process.

That finding comes as no surprise to Fred Pederson, a Pinehouse elder.  “I’ve sent in FOI requests myself,” he says.  “The last time, they told me I would have to pay $750 to get the documents.  For a senior on pension?  That’s ridiculous!  Mostly they just ignore me, anyway – it’s like I’m a nobody.”  So he appreciates the help coming from outside the community.

In his FOI request filed in August 2018, Hande wanted to understand how Mayor Natomagan could be earning the extremely high salary and be reimbursed for the massive expense claims reflected in the Village’s annual audited financial statements.  He waited for three months to get a response and received the documents only after the Information Commissioner’s staff forcefully intervened.  He was trying to get the information in time for people to be made aware prior to a November 28 byelection for one seat on Village Council; the documents came too late for that.  However, what Hande did discover raised even more concerns.

Over a four-year period, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 (the last financial statement released), Mike Natomagan’s earnings and expense claims for his duties as mayor were reported as follows:

Year                Remuneration        Reimbursed Costs       Total

2014                $82,377                      $28,250                             $110,627

2015                $90,670                      $33,412                             $124,082

2016                $91,000                      $32,965                             $123,965

2017                $76,900                      $17,733                             $ 94,633

By comparison, Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne earned $90,186 in 2017, and his total travel expenses were $2,165.  The 2016 census gives the population of Prince Albert as 35,926, while that of Pinehouse was 1,052.

Payroll payment vouchers and expense claims explain the Pinehouse Mayor’s high remuneration.  From 2014 to 2017, he had a base salary of $2307 biweekly (roughly $60,000 per year).  That salary was topped up by a $200 per diem (considered as earnings) for each day the Mayor was absent from the Village on business.  In 2014, he was away on business for 99 days (i.e. $19,800 additional earnings).  In 2015 he claimed per diems for 152 days, and in 2016, for 139 days.  Employer costs for statutory contributions and benefits bring the totals in line with those reflected in the financial statements.

In 2017 Natomagan’s remuneration and expense claims both dropped significantly, particularly in the last half of the year.  I believe this is because the Ministry of Government Relations was finally questioning the level of his compensation and demanding adjustments.

Mayor Natomagan is also President of Pinehouse Business North (PBN), the Village-owned business development corporation with headquarters in Saskatoon.  We know the PBN board directors also get paid, but generally we don’t know how much because the corporation and the Village refuse to release PBN’s financial statements.  It is presumed that many, if not most, of the Mayor’s trips to Saskatoon related to PBN business, which begs the question, Why wasn’t PBN covering those expenses rather than the Village?

We got a glimmer of the Mayor’s PBN compensation from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix’s exposé of Neil Robertson’s inspection report this March, in which reference is made to Natomagan’s PBN salary being increased from $63,000 to $86,500/year in December 2017.  So in effect, his combined salary from both Village and PBN in 2016-17 was $154,000, and at the end of 2017 that increased to in the range of $163,400. (Note: the Premier of Saskatchewan earns only slightly more, $166,137.)

Frequently, the expense claim forms themselves reveal very little of the Mayor’s travels: where he is going, what meetings he is attending, etc.  The only sure way to track this is through the individual receipts he submitted, and these raise questions as to whether or not all of those days absent from the Village were actually spent on business as he claimed.

Although other members of Pinehouse Village Council and employees abide by a cap of $43 per day for meals and incidentals, the Mayor does not follow the same rules.  Some of his daily meal expenditures are luxurious, with tabs paid at fancy restaurants reimbursed from Village coffers without question, it seems.  Receipts for single meals submitted for 2014-16 often amounted to hundreds of dollars.  He even claimed for one meal in Banff, Alberta, at $142 with tip on Valentine’s Day, 2016, but no indication that he was transacting any Village business there at the time.

And then there are the many golf expense claims each year for prestigious courses around the province.  Charges to the Village amounted to as much as $620 at Meadow Lake Golf Club on June 26, 2015, while making his way to business meetings in Saskatoon.

That golfing date is significant because, at the time, there was a general evacuation of Pinehouse residents under threat of forest fire in 2015.  The fire raged for at least two weeks while a core of volunteers stayed behind to help protect the Village.  Mayor Natomagan was not among those volunteers; he was in Meadow Lake playing golf, attending meetings in Saskatoon (we guess); he was even spotted in Prince Albert around that time.  While Pinehouse evacuees were sleeping on cots in hockey arenas in southern Saskatchewan, getting food coupons from the Red Cross, the Mayor claimed $1400 in per diems and charged his meals to the Village.  One receipt submitted was for $161 at Ricky’s All Day Grill in Prince Albert that July 1.

What really matters about all this is the hope that the next time it comes to elect a new Mayor and Council in Pinehouse, the people will have reliable information to hold the current officials to account.  There have been many concerns raised about high administrative costs in the Village, the many apparent conflicts of interest on the part of the Mayor, the favouritism shown to his family and friends, the lack of accountability regarding contracts and dividends to the Village from Pinehouse Business North.

Fred Pederson explains, “I hope the next Council will order a forensic audit of the Village finances.  That’s the only we way we will really get the answers to all those questions people have been asking about. Then we can maybe get this town back on track.”

D’Arcy Hande

(April 2019)

To view all the salary and expense claims, click on

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1TEWsi6csHEPpUqTvjtmtrBhOiKdrtCSs