Questions over transparency arise at Port Alberni city hall

Port Alberni mayor and council’s record on transparency and staffing practices were called into question at Monday’s council meeting.

Roland Smith holds up a Freedom of Information Request sent to the city by PEAK FM journalist David Wiwchar.

Port Alberni mayor and council’s record on transparency and staffing practices were called into question at Monday’s council meeting.

“Whether individual councillors like it or not, all of council shares the responsibility for the disquieting mood which has descended over city hall during the short time Mike Ruttan has been mayor,” resident Roland Smith told council.

“The public have been asking questions that seek to have the rationale and the economics explained around the most seismic personnel event induced by a council in modern Port Alberni history.”

The event referred to is former city manager Ken Watson’s  reassignment to the role of major projects advisor in January of this year, a role that will end Dec. 31, 2016 with Watson’s retirement. Port Alberni fire Chief Tim Pley was made acting city manager and a company has been hired to find a replacement.

At the time, Ruttan said that Watson’s reassignment was only “indirectly” related to the Judy Rogers organizational structure review undertaken by the city in 2015.

Smith also questioned why Ruttan was unable to clearly answer whether or not the city had received any freedom of information requests regarding the organization review at the June 13 meeting. Instead, Ruttan told Smith at the time that he was unsure whether or not the city could respond.

“Not sure whether or not I can answer that question,” Ruttan said two weeks ago.

News director for 93.3 The Peak David Wiwchar confirmed to both the Alberni Valley News and to Smith that he had submitted an FOI regarding the Judy Rogers organization review on Feb. 5, 2016 and received a response on March 2, 2016. Wiwchar declined to comment further.

Smith questioned Ruttan on why he was unable to provide a suitable answer at the June 13 meeting.

“From the moment this document was released by the city to Mr. Wiwchar, the information contained within was immediately considered to be in the public domain. There are no confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements between the city and Mr. Wiwchar that prevents either party from revealing this document’s existence in public. I would have expected the top elected official to know this, and to also have expected him to be prepared to answer questions about F.O.I. requests,” said Smith.

“The mayor had the chance to be open with the public about the existence of this F.O.I. document, and about it being in the public domain.  Instead though, he chose not to disclose. That’s not transparency.”

Ruttan did answer Smith’s questions about the FOI request on Monday night, adding that the request was never provided to council during an in-camera meeting.

The Judy Rogers organizational review, which cost the city a total of $52,347, was released in February. The report did not mention personnel by name, nor did it outline a need to switch out city managers. Neither were mentioned in a subsequent report released by Pley on implementation of the  Rogers review.

The only reasons provided by Ruttan in the past for Watson’s reassignment have been that he will be able to cut consulting costs for the city.

“He’s moving into a senior advisory role as well as helping with a series of projects we have on the go,” Ruttan said in January.

“He will be able to provide that advice perhaps in lieu of consultants that we may otherwise have hired.”

(Although the News has approached Watson for comment on more than one occasion, he has not responded.)

According to director of finance Cathy Rothwell, Watson’s salary for his new role is the same as his old role— $13,232 per month or $158,778 annually. Pley, in his dual capacity as fire chief and acting city manager, has been bumped up to 90 per cent of the city manager’s salary— $11,908 monthly.

That’s $2,625 more per month than Pley’s 2015 fire chief salary for an expected extra cost of $15,750 for the anticipated six-month period that Pley will be performing both roles. The city will spend up to $35,000 to find a permanent CAO (Davies Park was recently hired for this search).

The management changes also included moving former director of corporate services Theresa Kingston over to a new role as director of community services, replacing the former director of parks, recreation and heritage Scott Kenny who retired in the summer of 2015, as well as hiring Krista Tremblay as the new human resources manager on May 1, 2016. Tremblay’s salary is $100,000 per year, Ruttan said on Monday.

Smith, who has questioned the financial reasoning behind the management changes at city hall at prior meetings, was told that the city would provide a financial accounting of management review at the July 11 meeting.

Smith said he’s yet to see the financial benefit to reassigning roles at city hall.

“The report is one thing. It’s the entire exercise of rejigging the management where I just don’t see it. I’ve been told that we will see the benefits of that in time,” said Smith during the meeting’s recess.

“It’s one of those expenses where when you prorate it out over several years, you get the break even point. It’s like a big investment in business, at a certain point down the road you start to become cash flow positive on your investment. I don’t know that this investment is really worth it.”

It’s not only the finances that worry Smith.

“Anyone who pays attention to council affairs or knows the staff knows that morale has taken a bit of a hit… and your human assets are just as important as your physical assets. If your human assets are not being looked after, then the physical assets don’t even matter anymore.”

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