Saanich staff profiled candidates during election campaign: Atwell

Presentation included each candidate's platform, political promises and stance on major issues like sewage treatment, amalgamation

Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell is promising to investigate why staff resources were used to profile political candidates during last month’s election campaign.

The “unprecedented” move resulted in a 22-page presentation in which each candidate’s platform, political promises and stance on major issues like sewage treatment and amalgamation was presented to a group of senior staff on Nov. 12, three days before the municipal election, Atwell said.

“Staff are supposed to be apolitical. This is really unprecedented and totally inappropriate,” said Atwell, adding he had “extreme difficulty” obtaining a copy of the presentation.

Atwell said he was tipped off to the presentation by some of the 34 staff members who were present a meeting held at the Cedar Hill golf course, confirmed by minutes released by Atwell.

The staff presentation does not include recommendations on which councillors and mayoral candidates to elect.

“I’ve shown this presentation to senior administrators at other municipalities and they’ve never seen anything like this,” he added.

Coun. Susan Brice said the practise of staff attending all-candidates meetings to identify “emerging issues” is something that’s taken place for years in Saanich.

“I know that certainly over the years, before (current Chief Administrative Officer) Paul Murray was even there, when the previous CAO was there, there were sometimes staff at all-candidates meetings to see what some of the emerging issues were and the direction the community might be going in,” Brice said. “It’s not something that has been raised in-camera or out of camera with me.”

Kimberly Speers, an assistant professor in public administration at the University of Victoria, said the bureaucratic development of a catalogue of “emerging issues” during an election campaign isn’t necessarily abnormal.

“In one way, I can see how staff should be doing their homework to know the issues that politicians are focusing on,” Speers said. “They may be doing that so that staff are prepared and can develop briefs for the incoming councillors. It may be innocent enough that this is part of the prep work that’s done.”

But Speers said the Saanich presentation has some curious components, such as the clear distinction between new candidates and incumbents.

“Why do staff have to know about that,” she said. “My gut reaction is that a lot of this is done by the media as well. There are lots of websites that already have this information as well. … It usually takes a while to build that trust between staff and new leadership and that may be some of what we’re seeing.”

Atwell said he considers the issue important enough to pursue, and he intends to find out who authorized the in-house candidate presentation, as well as the associated costs to the municipality.

“This is going to end. This is never going to happen again,” Atwell said.

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Controversy over top bureaucrat’s job status

Last week, a media report suggested CAO Paul Murray was being pushed out after an in-camera council meeting. On Monday morning, Atwell confirmed Murray is “still an employee of the District of Saanich” and said it would be inappropriate to comment on any in-camera discussions. Firing a senior staffer requires a yes vote by two-thirds of council.

Coun. Fred Haynes said it would be inappropriate to comment on any personnel or in-camera issue “until we as a council decide on what can be released to the public.”

“I look forward to getting to the other side of this so we can focus our energies on taking Saanich forward,” Haynes said.