By Alistair TaylorBlack Press
Interim Saanich chief administrative officer (CAO) Andy Laidlaw was investigated over an allegation of conflict of interest in November of last year.
Lawyer Richard Grounds conducted the investigation for the city but no action taken as a result of his report has been made public. However, in January, the city announced Laidlaw was retiring from his job as Campbell River CAO.
Saanich is seeking a new CAO as Laidlaw’s contract ends in August.
Mayor Andy Adams said he is bound by confidentiality agreements and that this issue involves “in-camera” information. In-camera refers to city council discussions that are not open to the public or the media. They most often deal with personnel issues.
Adams did say that the decision to retire was made by Laidlaw and was not connected to the Grounds report.
Adams wouldn’t say anything more about the report but he did emphatically endorse Laidlaw and the work he did for nearly four years for the City of Campbell River.
“Andy did a great job here,” Adams said. “We were extremely fortunate to have someone of Andy’s calibre.”
The investigation centred around Laidlaw’s business relationship with a consulting firm, Jerry Berry Consultants Inc., which provided services to the City of Campbell River. The investigation was to look at whether Laidlaw was paid for services he provided to Jerry Berry in circumstances where he had a role in awarding city contracts to Jerry Berry Consultants Inc.
Former Mayor Walter Jakeway said the investigation report was delivered to him and his council for a brief look at a meeting after last November’s civic election but because the newly-elected mayor and council was taking office shortly afterwards, the report was taken back from the “lame duck” council to be given to the new one.
“The previous council saw it for one hour (in) the two weeks between the election and the new council taking office,” Jakeway said.
Jakeway lost the mayor’s seat in that election to former Coun. Andy Adams while two members of the previous council were re-elected and joined by three new councillors and a returning councillor from previous councils.
Asked about the conclusion of the report, Jakeway, who reiterated that he was going by memory, said, “It was not a good scene.”
Contacted by the Campbell River Mirror, Laidlaw acknowledged that were was an investigation by Grounds but “any error on my part was minor and inadvertent and certainly did not cause any harm to the city.”
Laidlaw said his retirement was planned in October but following the November election, he stayed on to help Mayor Adams with the transition to a new council. He said he had originally planned to stay for a three year term in Campbell River but ended up extending it to just short of four years.
“The mayor (Adams) is correct, my retirement was my decision,” Laidlaw said. “I enjoyed my time in Campbell River and believed I left on good terms with the mayor and council.”
Laidlaw must have been referring to the current mayor because he said he didn’t have such a good relationship with the previous mayor.
“I acknowledge the final three years was difficult as the relationship between the mayor and the rest of council was dysfunctional in that he would not accept direction from council,” Laidlaw said.
A Victoria magazine, Focus, and its website, focusonline.ca, obtained a document outlining the terms of reference for Grounds’ investigation and another informing Laidlaw he was being investigated which was signed by then-mayor Jakeway. The documents were attached to the magazine’s story on its website. Jakeway said he had nothing to do with the website obtaining the documents.
The letter to Laidlaw from Jakeway labelled “Stricly private & confidential” and “Hand delivered” said he was being investigated because of a “possible, apparent or real conflict of interest between you, Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. and your company ACKL Consulting Ltd., as well as possible disclosure by you of confidential information belonging to the City of Campbell River.”
The letter says, “The City’s concerns involve whether you have performed paid work for Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. or another entity, while Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. or another entity has been engaged to provide services to the City. The City’s concerns extend to the possibility that you may have a business relationship with Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. or other entities and may have been paid for services provided by you to Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. or other entities in circumstances where you have had a role in awarding or recommending the award of contacts by the City to Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. or other entities. In addition, the City’s concerns involved whether you have disclosed the City’s confidential information to Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. or another entity.”
The investigation was done in November last year by Grounds and cost the city $25,523.
Jakeway told Focus that Grounds’ investigation determined that Laidlaw’s actions constituted a conflict of interest but it was decided to leave it for the new council to deal with.
No action from council was ever announced but Laidlaw left his CAO job with the city in January.
Adams took issue with the Focus report, saying it is “completely inaccurate that this council took no action or didn’t deal with it. We obviously received it and discussed it.”
Council then made a determination as to what the next step was, Adams said, but he stopped there adding “what I can say is, that is in-camera information.”
The bottom line for Adams was that Laidlaw took on a job as interim CAO that extended to nearly four years and that council was happy with his work.
In announcing Laidlaw’s retirement in January, Adams said, “On behalf of City Council, we extend our appreciation for the good work that Mr. Laidlaw has done over the past four years. And we wish him and his wife the best in their next adventure, wherever that may lead them.”
Laidlaw said then that “for the organization, and for me, this is a good time to start a new chapter. The city has a new mayor and council with an ambitious four-year term ahead of them, and leaving now gives them time to select a new city manager, who can work alongside them throughout their term. I believe I can leave now knowing the city is in a better place than when I first started.”
Laidlaw started at the city in 2011 and presided over a period of transition with the Elk Falls pulp mill shutting down permanently just prior to his arrival.
He also was in charge of city administration during a period of turmoil and contentious relations with then-Mayor Jakeway. Jakeway was often at odds with city senior staff, accusing them of being the tail that wagged the dog, i.e., leading elected city councillors instead of being lead by them.
Jakeway was also often in conflict with his fellow city councillors, refusing to succumb quietly when he lost democratically-held votes at the council table. He would often take his opinions to the media and was censured by council who believed his role was to represent the majority view of council. Jakeway didn’t agree.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire
After leaving in January, Laidlaw wasn’t idle long because he was soon hired under contract to be interim CAO of the District of Saanich. There he parachuted right into the middle of a shockingly contentious situation that might have made his Campbell River tenure look like a picnic.
On Jan. 12, Saanich’s new mayor Richard Atwell held a press conference to announce that city staff had been spying on his computer through the installation of protection and monitoring software – also called spyware. The installation of that software involved another bureaucrat with a Campbell River connection, corporate services director Laura Ciarniello. Ciarniello and Laidlaw worked together in Campbell River where Ciarniello was manager of corporate services.
Ciarniello was involved with a group of Saanich administrators who decided to install the protection and monitoring software on their workstations, two executive assistants, councillors and the mayor, according to Focusonline.
Focus outlined Laidlaw and Ciarniello’s role in the controversy: “Laidlaw was tasked with investigating the circumstances of the spyware installation for the District of Saanich. His report was released on June 24 and has done nothing to stem the controversy with Laidlaw’s own conflict of interest background and his previous professional relationship with Ciarniello reflecting negatively on his ability to be unbiased in his report. The report did not find any blame and wrongdoing,” according to Focus writers David Broadland and Daniel Palmer.
Laidlaw acknowledges the controversial nature of the situation in Saanich.
“I am working in a highly politicized environment in Saanich where there are definitely some similarities to my final three years in Campbell River,” Laidlaw told the Mirror.
Laidlaw said that his “final” retirement will be coming soon as Saanich has begun the search for a new CAO.