Saanich council critical of mayor over police chief’s contract

Mayor Richard Atwell accuses council of “throwing him under bus”

Mayor Richard Atwell says he feels “singled out” by a letter from his council colleagues that criticizes the role of the Police Board, which he chairs, over changes to the employment status of Saanich’s top cop.

The public heard last month that Saanich paid Chief Constable Bob Downie $378,790 following his retirement on July 31, then rehired him as a contractor for two years (plus an option year), with an annual salary of about $222,711 plus benefits, vacation, leaves of absence and expense reimbursements.

News of this arrangement has caused public anger and prompted questions about the substance and style of the announcement.

The letter, dated Oct. 2, addresses the Saanich Police Board in general and its chair – Atwell – by name.

Its opening paragraph “recognizes and respects” the autonomy of the police board to manage the operation and staffing of the Saanich police department. Its second paragraph, however, also appears to be questioning the substance of contract and its announcement.

“Council is responsible for ensuring Saanich is well governed and transparent in its operations and therefore is disappointed that we were not made aware by the Police Board of the board’s decision regarding changes to the employment status of Chief Downie until the media release was issued,” it reads.

The final paragraph invites the police board to discuss with council how “we can communicate more effectively and in a timely manner on matters of mutual interest.”

The signed names of Couns. Susan Brice, Judy Brownoff, Fred Haynes, Dean Murdock, Colin Plant, Vicki Sanders and Leif Wergeland appear below.

Atwell said he was aware that councillors would draft the letter, but recused himself from its drafting. “It makes no sense to be a signatory to a letter addressed to me,” he said.

Haynes, who chaired the in-camera meeting that drafted the letter as acting mayor, said Atwell missed an opportunity to inform council in advance of the arrangement with Downie, explain the rationale behind it, and seek additional input from council.

For someone who campaigned on openness and transparency, Atwell missed an opportunity, said Haynes.

Haynes said the signatories recognize the exclusive domain of the Police Board, when it comes to making personnel decisions, including contracts, which do not require council’s approval.

“That said, council has a responsibility for the overall budget and management of Saanich Police, as part of the municipality,” said Haynes.

Atwell said he understands the concerns of councillors. But he also noted that the Police Board stands apart from council to avoid political interference. Atwell also said that he had informed chief administrative officer Paul Thorkelssson in May about potential changes to the employment status of Downie. Staff in Saanich’s finance department also did not raise any red flags about the arrangement, he said.

The mayor questions why councillors are suddenly taking an interest in this issue, when they had knowledge about what was owed to Downie for his years of service – a sum that had accumulated under the long tenure of the previous mayor [Frank Leonard] and various councils of the past.

“Before the council starts casting blame, they need to look at their own oversight, and the oversight during the long tenure of the former mayor [Leonard],” said Atwell. “That is where the focus of the ire of taxpayers needs to be directed,” said Atwell, who defended the arrangement with Downie. “This contractual agreement for the first time in Saanich decouples the chief’s salary from union negotiated increases to reduce costs and eliminate conflict of interests,” he said.

Haynes does not buy that argument, saying Atwell has been the chair for three years with all the responsibilities that come with that office.

Atwell said this letter is consistent with previous actions aimed against him.

“There has been a long history over the last three years of council trying to throw me under the bus, and it has been unsuccessful,” he said.

Haynes disagrees. “I see occasions where the mayor seeks the opportunity to create circumstances that make it appear council won’t co-operate.”

This said, council has experienced confusion, said Haynes. Political disagreements are inevitable and the key for the future is to work collaboratively.