The Knysna-Plett Herald’s article on ANC Chief Whip Stephen de Vries receiving R28 000 towards his studies this year was troubling for several reasons. I’ll first discuss the possible implications and then explain why it is illegal.
Why were we, the public, unaware that De Vries’s studies were being paid? The municipality must have a policy regulating study loans or bursaries to councillors and municipal staff – Acting Municipal Manager Grant Easton must supply that and, separately, the agreement with De Vries and any others receiving ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money.
I can understand councillors being sent on MFMA courses etc. but what does Knysna gain from De Vries’ studies? Will he just leave politics and enter municipal or provincial government where he can earn even more? Did Knysna Municipality even ask him?
I’ve long said that the ANC isn’t opposition in Knysna as they do nothing opposing of importance. Why not has always been another troubling question.
- Stephen de Vries is on the Knysna Tourism Board. He’s one of 3 people (which included ex-Municipal Manager Lauren Waring who initially gave him study money) who selected Greg Vogt as CEO (which i claimed was part of the cover-up of what happened with the organisation’s finances).
- He is on the committee to choose the new Municipal Manager (which Easton has apparently applied for).
- He is on another oversight body called MPAC (Municipal Public Accounts Committee).
How do we ensure that there is no conflict of interest? Who checks on Stephen de Vries?
Furthermore, he used to work regionally with Eleonor Spies, Knysna’s ex-ANC Mayor who suddenly, last year, got made a DA Ward Councillor and was immediately promoted to Speaker, one of the most important positions in our town.
Let’s tackle the legal side.
The Municipal Finance Management Act says that, “Any remuneration paid or given in cash or in kind to a person as a political office-bearer or as a member of a political structure of a municipality otherwise than in accordance with subsection (1), including any bonus, bursary, loan, advance or other benefit, is an irregular expenditure, and the municipality” must recover it and report it.”
Acting Municipal Manager Grant Easton was correct when he stated in the Knysna-Plett Herald that the latest version of the Determination of Upper Limits of Salaries for Councillors allows study money. What he failed to mention is that it carries a very narrow definition i.e. “Municipality may contribute towards the payment of costs towards capacity building initiatives directed at councilors.”
So that there was no ambiguity, i emailed Faiez Jacobs, the Director for the Western Cape for Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent (MISA) which is an important arm of the Ministry for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA). The latter is headed by ex-Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan who is the force driving the desperately needed Back to Basics program for municipalities.
I was extremely surprised and pleased to receive an efficient response the same day after it had been passed onto Legal in COGTA.
“Capacity Building for councillors:
Capacity building funded by the municipality for councillors we regarded as an irregular expenditure previously in terms of section 167 of the MFMA because they were not covered in the Notice by the Minister on remuneration and benefits for councillors. In order to respond to this unfortunate situation, a provision was made in the 2013 / 14 Notice for municipalities to set aside budget intended for training and development of councillors on programmes conducted by provincial, national departments and organised local government through institutions of higher learning. As an emphasis, this has been prohibited previously and classified as an irregular expenditure in terms of section 167 of the Municipal Finance Management Act.
Since now legally it is within the gazette of the Minister on remuneration and benefits of councillors, it responds to section 167 of the MFMA. However, for implementation purposes the gazette emphasises that municipality must apply to the MEC for local government to determine affordability of the remuneration and benefits, this implies municipalities cannot go and implement the gazette without the concurrence of the MEC.
Since the implementation by the municipality requires concurrence from the MEC all municipalities must abide by the decision of the MEC. If municipalities have implemented without the concurrence of the MEC that is in breach of section 167 (a) of MFMA then section 167 (2) will apply to recover that money (refer to extract below).
Lastly, it is important to note that all training programmes in a municipality are informed by the workplace skills plan of each municipality in order for everyone to undergo training programmes that are work related. Municipalities must also have council policies that do not conflict with legislation in order to support the implementation of their capacity building programmes.
Does Grant Easton have permission from the MEC? If so, why didn’t he mention it?
How can Stephen de Vries’ studies be considered “work related” i.e. to the direct benefit of Knysna?
Why did Melony Paulsen, the head of Legal Services, not object?
Why did Knysna’s politicians and Directors not respond to my urgent query?
What the Law allows and what the right thing to do for Knysna are separate matters. Our town has been hit by regular infrastructure failure; potholes swallow car parts, the estuary gets polluted and pipes burst. Surely money can be better spent there, fighting crime or on a hundred other things?
For years, the DA has failed their austerity election promise, and, suspiciously as we approach elections, they finally say that they won’t take a pay increase… but by allowing these study monies are they not finding a way around it as they did with their new offices and furniture (whose total cost they have still not supplied us)? What else don’t we know?
What is the right thing to do for Knysna? Did Grant Easton do the wrong thing? How would the public choose for the money to be spent?