Tall democracy

By David Broadland, September 2013

Was Victoria City Manager Gail Stephens' "resignation" actually something else?

When Victoria City Manager Gail Stephens resigned in late June, a couple of pieces of apparently conflicting information caught my attention.

First, in a news story on Stephen’s resignation, the Times Colonist revealed that Victoria’s council had voted 5 to 4 in support of Stephens after a group of 12 citizens requested an inquiry into her conduct.

Juxtaposed against that, in the reporting on the resignation were a number of councillors who publicly expressed great surprise that Stephens had resigned, as though a 5 to 4 vote was a resounding show of confidence.

There seems to be a backstory here worth exploring. That 5 to 4 vote would have been held at a closed council meeting. Unless councillors had voted to “rise and report”—they didn’t—even revealing that such a vote had been held, let alone how the vote divided, is a violation of the BC Community Charter.  Under the Charter, a councillor or civic official divulging a confidential vote would be breaching their oath of office. 

Back in April, I asked Councillor Geoff Young if a council meeting to consider Stephens’ conduct had taken place. Young replied, “Not only may I not discuss the specific content of in camera discussions, I may not even disclose the fact of any such specific discussions having or not having taken place.”

So how did it come to pass that the TC  knew a vote had been held—even how the vote split— yet not a single question was raised about divulging confidential information? There’s a intriguing possibility here. It goes like this:

Stephens’ contract with the City was unexpectedly extended by three years (to 2017) in July 2012. Her remuneration over the next four years would have amounted to close to $1 million. Yet she apparently left it voluntarily to work for a very troubled project in Winnipeg. Stephens’ contract required that she give three months notice of her intention to leave employment with the City. Yet an FOI filed after she announced her resignation showed she gave only one month’s notice. Why did councillors allow Stephens to skip this condition of her contract?

Hold that thought for a moment.

Before Stephen’s resignation, Focus had FOIed for the City’s severance agreements negotiated between 2010 and 2013. They showed that the City is willing to publicly portray a firing as a voluntary leaving.

Was that “5 to 4” vote released to the Times Colonist as cover for what really happened at Victoria City council sometime in April? Did councillors actually fire Stephens and then agree to package her leaving as her choice, including leaking information to the TC about the vote taken at an in camera meeting? The politics that might have been at play in such a scenario are also intriguing. Not only was Stephens’ conduct at issue in the months before her resignation, so was Mayor Fortin’s.

As you may recall, Stephens made a report to City Council just before the 2011 civic election that claimed the Johnson Street Bridge replacement project was on budget. But that group of 12 citizens later determined Stephens had been advised months before by senior finance department officials that millions in costs had not been accounted for. The 12 citizens also found those same senior finance officials recommended councillors be advised. 

We know that Stephens and other senior City staff—all of whom had been made aware of the finance department’s concerns—were scheduled to privately brief Mayor Fortin on the bridge project just a few days before Stephens made her now famous misrepresentation. Mayor Fortin has never answered questions about whether such a meeting took place, or, if it did, what he was told. Was the mayor informed of the unaccounted-for costs before the election? A public inquiry into the matter would likely have addressed that question. With Stephens leaving the province, the probability such an inquiry would be held diminished to zero.

Were all these issues resolved behind closed doors, beyond the reach of public accountability, with Stephens agreeing to go and the mayor and a majority of councillors agreeing to hide what had happened?

These questions are raised here to illustrate why there is a problem with keeping the public’s business a secret, a tendency that had grown at City Hall under Stephens’ leadership. Whether a vote of confidence in Stephens supported her or not, a majority of councillors, by deciding not to report their decision to the people they represent, proved they were only representing themselves.

Those 12 citizens, on the other hand, with nothing to be gained personally for their efforts, and facing a near certainty that they would later be called bullies and nattering nabobs of negativity, acted in the best interests of the community by demanding that the public’s business be kept public.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.