Watchgroup wants Saanich to be more transparent

Chair of Grumpy Taxpayer$ criticizes opinion piece by Mayor Richard Atwell

The chair of a local watchdog group says Saanich should follow Victoria in being more transparent when it comes to salaries of public employees.

“The City of Victoria has brought in the practice of publishing its police chief’s contract, why doesn’t Saanich follow suit?” asked Stan Bartlett, chair of the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria. “Full transparency around the spending of public money is comforting to the taxpayer.”

He issued this demand after Mayor Richard Atwell had published an opinion piece in which he once again defended the controversial contract of Saanich’s top cop.

Atwell has since responded by saying that Saanich has published the contract of Downie in the press release announcing it.

The public learned last month that Saanich paid Chief Constable Bob Downie $378,791 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 figure of $378,790 includes Downie’s retirement allowance of $126,781 for his 35 years of service and $252,010 in unused banked hours.

News of this arrangement has caused considerable anger and its handling has sparked a perhaps unprecedented public row between Atwell and the other members of council, who questioned both the substance of the contract and its announcement in a letter out sent last week through Saanich’s public relations department.

Atwell has since taken the offensive with his opinion piece, in which he described the arrangement with Downie as “a good deal for taxpayers” that will end up saving them $22,700.

By paying Downie a retirement allowance of $126,781 for his 35 years of service, “taxpayers no longer have to pay the additional [retirement] allowance that would have accumulated over the next three years,” Atwell said.

Bartlett acknowledged these arguments, but reiterated his critique of the contract.

“While all these claims may very well be true, they won’t make Saanich residents feel any better about the generous wage and benefit package given to the chief of police,” said Bartlett. “Most taxpayers believe that when the [Premier] of B.C. earns $200,000 for managing the province, and ministers of entire departments make $150,000, a salary of almost $225,000 for the police chief of a relatively small jurisdiction is excessive.”

While Atwell acknowledged that Saanich’s decision to pay Downie $252,010 in unused banked hours has “upset many residents,” Downie would have inevitably received this amount following his scheduled retirement in 2020, while pointing figures at former mayor Frank Leonard.

“These unused hours accumulated during the tenure of the former mayor and until February 2015, when the [police board] effected a new policy to prevent this from recurring,” said Atwell in his opinion piece. “All future chiefs will be subject to contracted limits so these kind of costs no longer surprise taxpayers.”

This situation, in other words, could be a case of Atwell holding the bag for decisions others have made.

“Agreed,” said Bartlett. “While Saanich councillors and residents are directing concerns to Mayor Atwell, it’s important to keep in mind that he’s only the chair [representing] council, and one voice on the seven-member Saanich Police Board.”

Bartlett however is not sure Atwell has done enough to prevent unused hours to accumulate. “It would appear those measures were less than successful,” he said. “The overall pay and benefit package is still excessive in our view.”

Atwell, for his part, has pointed to the policy change concerning unused hours that the board passed in February 2015 to prevent a repeat.

Accordingly, Bartlett is calling on Saanich to lobby the province for salary changes. “Talk to the government about bringing in a provincial pay scale for non union municipal employees,” he said. “Given the province’s finance minister, Carole James, has commissioned what she’s calling a “fiscal sustainability review,” municipal ‘golden parachutes’ are also a worthy focus.”

Bartlett did not want to judge the financial management culture of Saanich and the Saanich Police Board through this episode. “That’s up to your readers to comment on, but judging by the public response to this issue they are certainly keen in getting better value for their tax dollar,” he said.

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