EDITORIAL: Police chief compensation creates perception problem

In both politics and policing, optics can play a major role in the initial determination of the facts. For example, when someone is running at night with a sack slung over their shoulder, chances are they’re going to draw the attention of police.

So no one should be surprised with the outcry that has arose over the $378,790 paid out to Saanich Police Chief Constable Bob Downie. The compensation package breaks down to $126,000 in severance and $252,000 in banked time, paid out following Downie’s retirement on July 31. But that was just the beginning, as the Saanich police board then rehired Downie as a contractor for two years (plus an option year), with an annual salary of about $222,711 plus benefits.

Stan Bartlett, chair of the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, said the payout sends the wrong signal to taxpayers and raises a number of questions. “Why has a huge amount of banked time been allowed to accumulate?” he asked. “Was the banked time accumulated while in a non-management capacity? What percentage of banked time is unused sick leave that’s been converted to a payout?”

Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell, who chairs the police board, says there is an innocent explanation for the whole matter. (For his part, Downie has chosen to remain silent, directing all questions to the police board.)

Atwell says the compensation does not carry any additional costs for Saanich taxpayers. He points out the nearly $380,000 in compensation would have had to have been paid out in any event. “We brought those costs forward three years, but those would have been the same inevitable costs that would have been paid out in 2020.”

What Attwell says makes some sense, and it certainly isn’t unusual to see someone with more than three decades of public service to depart with a golden parachute. But the fact that the public, and even members of council, didn’t learn of the compensation package for six weeks gives the appearance that things were being swept under the rug.

And as any midnight jogger can attest, optics can sometimes be a hard thing to run away from.