Monday, August 25, 2008

Oh, we heard it through the grapevine…

It took me by surprise I must say,
When I found out yesterday.
Don't you know that...

I heard it through the grapevine

The Lyrics of Marvin Gaye,
Heard it through the Grapevine.1968

Prince Rupert’s mainstream media seems to have finally caught up with the local grapevine of the coffee shop conversations and the wired ruminations of the city’s internet addicted populace.

The question over some recent personnel issues at City Hall, has migrated from the ever active Prince Rumour mill, through the bulletin boards of the local chat forum hackingthemainframe and now on to both the Northern View and the Daily News.

However, in this case it truly is the public driving the news agenda and not the investigative skills of our reporting class. The suggestions of hiring practices at City Hall that were perceived as not quite the norm, have been popping up around town for about a year and a half now.

The story mind you, didn’t seem to pick up any legs until a participant on htmf posted a clearly frustrated item recently, one which outlined her troubles in getting the attention of both City Hall and the local newspapers on the issue.

Suddenly as the intertubes of htmf came afire with discussion, the weekly paper Northern View jumped in with an article last week. That seems to have been the incentive for the Daily News to finally tackle the story, resulting in today’s Blazing declartion in the Monday paper.

Monday’s edition of the Daily News features a front page story from Kris Schumacher, one which gives a nod to the curious nature of Rupertites on the workings of City Hall’s hiring procedures. Todays paper comes complete with the attention grabbing headline “Rupert citizens displeased with city’s ‘unusual’ contract”.

The crux of the controversy seems to be a position provided for Tannaleee Hesse, the spouse of the current City Manager Gord Howie. Ms. Hesse who arrived on the local scene when her significant other Mr. Howie returned to Prince Rupert, has since then taken on a number of local government tasks, first with the Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District and most recently on a contract basis with the staff at Prince Rupert City Hall.

What seems to have registered on the radar of local citizens has been the nature of the City Hall postings which appear to have evolved almost from the fog and without the expected quest for local applications from the population. Also of interest to the locals, has been a rather questionable intervention by the Mayor into the hiring process, one which seems to run against the concept of any normal Human resources procedures.

According to the Daily News story in Monday’s paper, Ms. Hesse has so far received $109,654 dollars in eighteen months, compensation gained under two corporate contracts with the City of Prince Rupert. Those contracts were ones that were never offered under public tender, a situation explained by the Mayor as a necessary requirement in order to attract someone of Ms. Hesse’s talents.

Of course the secretive nature of those negotiations is what has captured the imagination of the city’s residents. They appear to certainly run contrary to the much vaunted declaration of an open and transparent government that was the buzzword of the last municipal election campaign.

Mayor Pond provided his take on the situation with a letter to the editor contribution in the Monday paper. While he tried to paint the tempest as just the usual bombast before a municipal election, his review of events gives an interesting view on his idea as to how municipal government should work.

His thoughts at times seem to reflect the concept of an imperial presidency approach to municipal governance, one where time cards seemingly aren’t a requirement and one where his decision alone is all that is required when the situation (in his opinion) warrants it.

The Mayor's letter to the editor provided a testimony as to the resumes and work ethics of both Mr. Howie and Ms. Hesse, and advises that Ms. Tesse “was retained on contract by me, hired during what he describes as a crazy time for the city, as the city’s administration began to falter. Pond admits to having overcome the logjam of the time, by negotiating the deal with Ms. Tesse himself, which saw her apparently accept a substantial reduction from her usual regular fee.

That of course was an admirable move from the soon to be civic employee, but one that must be seen in the colour of her husband’s negotiations previous with the city.

As mentioned in the Mayor’s letter, when Mr. Howie accepted the opportunity to return to Rupert he arrived first as a contract employee and then accepted a permanent position. What isn’t mentioned in the Mayors review of events, is that upon his move to permanent status Mr. Howie received a significant raise in pay from the previous holder of the office.

And while no two positions should be compared we guess, the idea that one household member would one day take a cut in their regular compensation, while the other had gained a raise certainly would take the sting out any sacrifice.

Perhaps what is of real interest is why those kinds of salaries were being offered in the first place at a time of great financial struggle for a city (a struggle that seems to continue judging by the ever upwards increase to our civic taxes each year).

At the time, one wonders why the city did not set a salary scale that was more reasonable and affordable for a city in straits as dire as ours were (and still are).

The process should have been to offer up the position (s) and then accept the applications of those that were willing to work for the salary we could afford.

A city in financial difficulties certainly shouldn’t be offering financial incentives, or skipping over normal personnel procedures simply to bridge “a crazy time”.

Had either Mr. Howie or Ms. Tesse decided that the salary as offered by the city just wasn’t up to snuff, then that would clearly be our loss. But somehow we figure eventually somebody with enough history or potential would gladly accept the opportunity to pad a resume with the city, even if it came at a salary more fitting to troubled times.

While the Mayor may like to paint the situation as just the usual rumblings before a municipal election, the recent sudden departures of other members of city hall staff (hello there Douglas Jay) suggest that maybe we need to know more about the happenings down at city hall.

The city’s six councilors need to explain what they knew about all of this and when they knew it, not to mention if they approved and signed off on the moves as outlined by the mayor.

As the Schumacher story in Monday’s paper outlines, a growing number of citizens are starting to ask questions about the machinations on Third Avenue West, it will be interesting to hear the answers from those elected three years ago. All of whom proclaimed their dedication to open and transparent government, on this issue it would seem that they collectively have dropped the ball.

For fun, we travelled back into the Podunkian time machine and a posting we delivered on the day after the last municipal election, our final note in that post was as follows:

"If the newcomers want to hit a home run in their first term, one simple tactic might do the trick. Keeping the mayor and the returning four councilors inclined to keep the public more informed, might go a long way to providing the best of public service."

Sadly, they and those that were incumbents in that election didn't seem to deliver on our wish.

Below for our archival purposes, we provide the front page story from the Monday Daily News and the Mayor’s letter to the editor in the same edition of the paper.

Citizens wonder why hiring didn’t go through city council
By Kris Schumacher
The Daily News
Monday, August 25, 2008
Pages one and three

A group of concerned citizens are calling the City of Prince Rupert’s financial practices into question after learning about administrative contracts that were never publicly tendered.

According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, special projects manager Tannalee Hesse received $109,654 in 18 months of work for the city between July 2006 and April 2008 under two corporate contracts. Citizens concerned that the way Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond hired Hesse was not consistent with typical municipal proceedings, particularly given that she is the spouse of City Manager Gord Howie.

Local business owner and longtime Prince Rupert resident Ted Sylvester has kept a watchful eye over municipal affairs for years, and said the current government’s ineptitude has become more than he can bare.

“When Herb was elected he promised an open and transparent government, and now it seems like Herb and Gord Howie are running everything with little input from council,” said Sylvester. “This is just one example of many improprieties that many of us in the city feel have been dealt with improperly.

”I’m very disappointed in the members of council, because they’ve been hearing about this for quite a while, and it’s their own fault if they’ve been kept in the dark about it.”

City of Prince Rupert Firefighter Rick Roemer is another member of the public with many unanswered questions, such as how the city can justify extra money for administrators while public services are being reduced.

“What happened to the openness and transparency that was promised from council when they were elected?” asked Rick Roemer., a firefighter with the City of Prince Rupert. “Why didn’t they ask for applications for a temporary person to fill that job until they found somebody permanently?

“Unlike most of the city positions that they advertise, why was this one done in secrecy? City management claims council knew about it, but councilor say they basically knew nothing about it. If there’s conflict between city management and city council, what does that lead taxpayers to believe is going on behind the doors at City Hall?

“And if it’s OK for the mayor to ‘do what he had to in order to get the job done,’ regardless of the rules and regulations he is supposed to work under, wouldn’t expecting taxpayers to follow the rules be hypocritical?”

There are a growing number of individuals like Sylvester and Roemer who are critical of the method in which Hesse’s contract was awarded, and believe their concerns need to be addressed immediately. A large group of citizens has already come together and drafted letters addressed to Mayor Pond and City Council, which state that Prince Rupert’s elected officials have failed to address the ‘nepotism’ and ‘cloud of secrecy’ that have crept into City Hall. The letters claim that council has been ‘derelict in its duty to question expenditures in the city’s financial statements and in demanding to be informed of what is going on.”

Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond has taken full responsibility for and defended the decision to award Hesse the contract, admitting it was an unusual decision for unusual circumstance.

“What we were able to do, and were very fortunate to do, was take advantage of someone who was in the community who actually does this work across the province at a much higher rate, and is in pretty high demand, and we were able to employ her services on some targeted projects as they were required,” said Mayor Pond.

Mayor Pond said the city did set guidelines in place to create a ‘firewall’ between Hesse and Howie, as he said the two were originally “reluctant” to enter into the contract.

“One was there would be no staff reporting to Ms. Hesse, no authoritative relationship within the organization,” said Pond.

“And the second one was that all of the invoices in terms of that part of the reporting would be vetted by me so it was an outside party reviewing and signing off on those. I was usually briefed on what the progress was and was aware of what the projects were.

“As long as I saw real work being accomplished and the hours matched the time I had roughly seen Ms. Hesse, on that basis I would approve the invoice.”

Michael Vaughn, a municipal lawyer and expert on local government affairs, explained that all kinds of contracts exist within municipalities, each with different procedures accompanying them. However, he did point out that whether a contract is ”as simple as buying a pencil or as large as entering into a long-term lease for municipal property,” at some level all contracts need the authority of council, although that authority may not need to be in the form of an official resolution.

Vaughan, who was the Municipal Clerk at the District of Sechelt for over five years and teaches municipal law each year at Capilano College to municipal employees, went on to say that a mayor usurping public notice for an employment contract due to special circumstances was, in his opinion “very unusual.”

“If that were necessary, the practical process would be to do something deemed necessary and then immediately have it ratified by council at the next meeting of council,” said Vaughan.

“There’s precedent for that type of thing, and from a legal perspective, until ratified one wouldn’t be able to uphold that type of activity or decision. Employment contracts are typically dealt with in-camera, but they are usually disclosed to the public by an announcement from council in open session as to what they’ve done.”

Letter to the Editor
Prince Rupert Daily news
Monday, August 25, 2008
Page 4

City had to make the right decision

Dear Editor,

When otherwise legitimate questions morph into barbed innuendo, it’s a sure bet that an election is just around the corner (Looking for Answers, Daily News, August 21)

Mr. Howie is a consummate professional and has been paid only that to which he is entitled. He was first retained on contract while Council conducted an exhaustive search and switched to salary when awarded the City Manager position permanently.

The City’s Annual Report (an audited and widely circulated public document) accurately records both forms of payment. Mr. Howie is the recipient of numerous recognitions and distinctions including election to President of the Local Government Management Association and an LGMA award for professional service.

Ms. Hesse was retained on contract by me, not Mr. Howie, and reported directly to me precisely because they are husband and wife. The City desperately needed her skill set and had advertised across the province unsuccessfully. She holds a diploma in Public Administration and a Senior Certificate from the Board of Examiners. She is a past President of the Lower Mainland LGMA and is in great demand across the province.

It was crazy.

Ms. Hesse, a resident of Prince Rupert, was taking her experience to communities around B. C., while City Administration was faltering because they couldn’t find someone just like Ms. Hesse.

I broke the logjam overcoming the reluctance from both Mr. Howie and Ms. Hesse; negotiated a substantial reduction from Ms. Hesse’s regular fee; and kept Council informed. All expenditures were within budget and were also accurately reported in the City’s Annual Report.

I’ve daily witnessed the contributions that these two highly regarded professionals have made to our community’s turnaround, both on and off the job. Prince Rupert is very fortunate to have them.

Herb Pond
Mayor, City of Prince Rupert

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