Saanich’s top cop says his contract is ‘rare’

Chief Constable Robert Downie appeared before Saanich council Monday

Saanich’s top cop Chief Constable Robert Downie appeared before council Monday.

For months, his contract has been the subject of much controversy. On Monday, Chief Constable Robert Downie appeared before Saanich council with a report that might cause controversy in as early as next year.

Sitting before council, Downie submitted a report that projected the financial impact of future retirements from the Saanich Police through 2020.

The report projects that seven anticipated retirements in 2018 could add up to more than $756,000 in combined retirement allowances and accrued leave payments. Combined retirement allowances and accrued leave payments could add up to more than 557,000 in 2020 with five expected retirements.

“Those figures could move forward or backward,” said Downie. “We don’t know who is retiring when,” he said. “So as soon as we get notice, we have been providing that to Saanich.”

The public heard last month to universal surprise that Saanich paid Chief Constable Bob Downie $378,790 in combined retirement allowance and accrued time following his retirement on July 31, only to rehire 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.

The move caused considerable criticism, if not outrage, but Mayor Richard Atwell has defended the arrangement as a “good deal for Saanich taxpayers” that saves more than $22,000 and decouples Downie’s salary from the collective agreement.

In fact, it was Atwell, who asked Downie to appear before council, which had been critical of Atwell and his handling of the file to the point that councillors (minus Coun. Karen Harper who was not yet sworn in) publicly released a letter criticizing Atwell.

Downie’s appearance — the last item during a busy council session that extended past 11 p.m. with no member of the public present in the audience — did not explicitly cite this history. Downie for his part never explicitly attempted to justify his arrangement nor did he comment on the criticism thereof.

But both Downie’s statements and questions from councillors nonetheless alluded to this background.

Downie, he said, should be aware of two points when it comes to the payout of retirement allowances and accrued leave.

“One, retirements that we currently experience and payouts associated to them, are not new, with my own package being the exception,” he said. “But outside of that, the projections going forward are consistent with what we had in previous years.”

Second, Downie promised that polices and practices in place now will prevent any accumulation of [accrued] leave beyond what the policy allows in the future. “Those [policies and practices] have been in place in practice since 2014, and officially through the [Saanich Police Board] since 2015,” he said.

Downie also answered a question from Coun. Colin Plant whether it was common for Saanich Police to rehire retired staff, as it did with Downie.

“Our experience is not to hire back,” said Downie. “Mine is a unique circumstance given the position I hold,” he said. While possible, Saanich Police has had not yet any discussions about re-hiring retired staff, with the proviso that “this possibility always exists, as it would in any municipality.”

The public also heard that Saanich budgets for retirements on an annual basis, leaving opening the possibility of unfunded liabilities in case of sudden retirements.

“We have been pretty accurate in the budgeting,” said Paul Thorkelsson, chief administrative officer. “And then we have some anomalies from time to time, that knock that sideways,” he said. “That was the case this year.”

This answer however did not fully convince Coun. Karen Harper. “I do worry about unfunded liabilities,” she said.

If the overall aim of Downie’s appearance was to defuse the political sensitivity of the issue, it appeared to have worked.

“This is entirely responsive to the concerns that council has raised,” said Coun. Dean Murdock.

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