The City of Revelstoke is once again without a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), the lead employee in the city, after city staff sent a late Friday afternoon media notice on Mar. 11, 2022, noting James Thackray “will no longer be serving” as the CAO.
The resignation is the latest blow to the current mayor and council, who have now cycled through three CAOs, one interim CAO, and the walk-back of another CAO’s hiring announcement, for a total of five. They will now be looking for number six, or their fourth full-time CAO.
The Mar. 11, 2022 announcement provided little detail, but announced that in the interim, Ron Mattiussi will “support staff during the transition and recruitment period.”
At the time of publication, the announcement was not posted to the city’s website or otherwise communicated. The news of the CAO’s departure was not mentioned in the Mar. 11, 2022 “Mayor’s Report” video posted to the City of Revelstoke YouTube page. The weekly interview, which is hosted by a host at commercial radio station Bounce 106.1 FM — which does not employ any local journalists — has a long tradition of being been a paid communication product for the City of Revelstoke, with city communications staff sometimes providing questions for the host to ask the mayor, particularly around sensitive topics. City staff post a recording of the audio interview to their YouTube page with city branding and logos and share it to other social media channels.
Ron Mattiussi served as the interim CAO in 2021, after former CAO Dawn Low resigned from the city in April of 2021. Mattiussi was hired to oversee the recruitment process for a permanent CAO, and announced the hiring of Chris Marshall in late summer 2021, which was soon followed by an embarrassing walkback a couple weeks later, when the city announced he was no longer planning to come.
The city then announced the hiring of James Thackray in September, 2021.
However, in the interim, it re-hired Ron Mattiussi as a consultant for the city, particularly following as-yet-clarified absence of the Development Services director, Marianne Wade, who was overseeing several major development processes, including the official community plan update, the development cost charges bylaw, the short-term rentals bylaw, and other major development services projects.
All of these projects were major council goals, and many look like they will not reach fruition before the fall election. Onboarding and getting a new CAO up to speed takes months.
Mattiussi was brought in after Wade left and some of the consultants associated with her projects were also dismissed. Much like an engineer doesn’t want take over a building project halfway-through, a new development services director would be reluctant to take on incomplete projects, especially in the run up to the October 2022 election. The time to hire and settle them may have meant they wouldn’t have been complete before the fall election, hurting the mayor and council’s re-election prospects.
Staff contacts have described Mattiussi as having an undefined very senior role as a consultant with the city. Revelstokemountaineer.com has made multiple official media inquiries asking for clarification of Mattiussi’s contract and role with the city — including this week prior to the latest departure CAO departure announcement — but we haven’t received a response. He was responsible for hiring the two CAOs in September, who have since departed.
In the interim, Mattiussi was hired as CAO of the Village of Lytton to oversee the rebuilding of the town destroyed by wildfire last summer.
The dynamic of a new CAO and a former interim CAO with an undefined senior role could create the perception of a power imbalance in city administration: Was Thackray directing Mattiussi, or vice versa? Who is directing Mattiussi in his undefined senior role? Was political direction, which should flow through be flowing through council and its legal authority?
Analysis: Dysfunction at the core
The mayor has separated himself from council for most of the term.
He has aligned himself with senior staff members, often positioning himself as having a senior administrative function, instead of as a leader of a democratically elected council. He has displayed a limited ability to adapt when things do not go his way, or simply when things go wrong, often cutting off communication during crises, of which there have been many.
As a result, the current council has bounced from crisis to crisis over its term, and looks highly likely council will simply run out of clock on its major policy objectives.
The mayor and various senior staff he has aligned himself with often retreat and restrict communication, leading to uncertainty among staff and council — there is very little internal communication in the organization. The mayor is often closely aligned with whoever is at the top of the organization, and when things inevitably get muddy, that staff person ends up taking the fall. The senior staff member often pulls the rip cord on the golden parachute clause that is built into their contract on hiring, costing the city many hundreds of thousands that is known of, and likely much more that has been absorbed by taxpayers without the courtesy of any proactive disclosure for taxpayers.
The generous golden parachute clauses are built into the contracts of senior staff upon hiring. When interpersonal conflicts arise later, senior staff are aware that if they escalate the conflict to a head, they will likely get a big payout whether they “resign,” “retire” or otherwise part ways with the city.
This disincentivizes teamwork and incentivizes brinkmanship among staff, who frequently engage in interpersonal disputes.
This has caused dysfunction and toxicity to flourish at city hall — in 2020 and 2021, WorksafeBC got involved following toxic scenes that led to staff departures, forcing the city implement bullying and harrassment policies. That episode ultimately led to the departure of four senior staff, and perhaps more. The aftermath led to costly legal bills from multiple legal firms, payouts that haven’t been disclosed, and reactive ad hoc fixes that have not proven to be solutions.
When asked, the city does not provide details of departure packages, forcing local media to go through the freedom of information process, such as this request showing the Allan Chabot, the first CAO to leave under the current mayor and council’s term, who the city said had “resigned,” was paid a “salary continuance” of $163,322, plus benefits. Former CAO Tim Palmer, who is now a city councillor after winning a February 2021 by-election to replace resigned Coun. Cross, received a total payout of $205,556 in 2015.
In another example not previously reported, Curtis Slingerland, who was Director of Administration for only a few months in mid-2020, received $35,000 in compensation after he left the city. This information was revealed in early 2021 as a result of an official freedom of information request filed by revelstokemountaineer.com. According to multiple sources, his role as an administration director required him to process the paperwork for harrassment complaints, and he was drawn into the middle of a dispute between other staff members, and then headed for the door and some fresh air a few months after he arrived. After receiving the result of our FIOPPA request, we reached out to the mayor, who had publicly denied bullying and harrassment issues at city hall.
We asked the mayor: if there were no issues, why was this payment made to Mr. Slingerland? Was the payout approved by council? As is often the case, his response, dated Feb. 3, 2021, was a one-line email: “The City’s employment relationships are internal matters involving the personal information of our employees and we do not discuss those circumstances publicly.”
Revelstokemountaineer.com media inquiries sent to city staff are sometimes responded to by the mayor, often with similar one-line statements that do not address the questions. We’ve pointed out the inappropriateness of questions directed to communication staff being sent to an elected official for response, but the problematic situation hasn’t been resolved. No staff response to our concerns that both privacy laws and normal procedure were being violated.
That episode saw the city hire more than one legal firm to try to sort through the many issues. Lawyers, including an out-of-province legal firm likely hired to keep the issues quiet, led an investigation that saw individual staff members called into appointments where they were grilled about what they said to whom when. The incident led to the departure of at least three staff, while other mid-level staff resigned near the same time. After WorksafeBC got involved, the city was required to hire another law firm to re-do its proposed workarounds.
In another episode, the mayor interfered extensively in the by-election following the early 2020 resignation of a city councillor, who in his resignation cited ethics concerns with the mayor and council’s plan to dramatically hike its own pay. After the many delays were questioned by revelstokemountaineer.com, the mayor took to his weekly radio program, offering a series of justifications for the delay.
It took over a year before the by-election was finally held, with many norms of the electoral process trampled upon in the meantime, including an embarrassing blooper from the Black Press-owned Revelstoke Review, which in November 2020 published and then soon deleted a story announcing an by-election date had been set. Even though it had been 10 months since the Coun. Cross had resigned, the city hadn’t even appointed a chief elections officer, the legal independent administrator of municipal elections. Review staff said the error happened after editorial staff wrote the story based on an advertisement sent to them by the city, being having been questioned publicly for many months on the lack of the appointment of a chief elections officer, another election irregularity.
When we reported on the error, Review staff lashed out at this journalist personally, with a full-page editorial attacking me professionally and personally for doing my job. The community newspaper has been subsidized by City of Revelstoke advertising for the past several years, including the “Mayor’s Message” weekly paid advertorial. It has never been clarified whether city taxpayers are paying for the message, or whether it is coordinated with council and administration.
In a Februrary, 2020 column in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine, we warned of potential threats to democratic processes, and they soon came to pass with the election irregularities. “It’s not just rough-and-tumble politics, it’s a broken system that doesn’t serve residents. Unless someone steps in to fix it, particularly the communication environment, expect diminishing returns from Revelstoke municipal democracy in the years to come,” we wrote in this column on pages 14-15 of the issue, prior to the by-election scandal. That column signaled our pull back from local municipal government reporting due to the ongoing toxic environment.
In the by-election, residents saw the need for organizational experience and elected a former city CAO who had previously “retired” from the city with a handsome payout.
The issue of senior staff “departures” has dogged the mayor since 2019.
All of the current councillors are first-termers who lack experience in the governance environment, with the exception of Tim Palmer, who was a former city CAO.
One councillor has been away on leave since January 2021. In background interviews and conversations, councillors have expressed that they feel out of the loop, finding out about projects just days before they are meant to decide on them. When plans and issues make it to the table, such as the never-ending, plot-twist filled short-term rentals bylaw process, they are rejected or kicked back by council for further staff review, eating up months and money, seemingly never drawing to a conclusion, and shaking public will to engage in the process or even try to follow along with the never-ending “process.”
Commercial lobbying interests, who are not shy of toxic environments, have stepped in to fill the void left by withdrawal of the previously highly engaged Revelstoke public. For example, the city’s latest short-term rentals proposal iteration highly favours well-known commercial interests.
As usual, when the latest crisis comes to a head, city communication staff — often with inappropriate political interference — don’t make an announcement using social media or other outlets where they could actually engage with residents, but send an email a couple media outlets, with an expectation that we pick up the pieces, drawing us into another crisis rooted in internal interpersonal disputes, not political matters. If we inquire, we are all but guaranteed to face a barrage of hurdles thrown our way. It’s toxic.
This isn’t politics, this is chronic dysfunction, a condition that can arise in an organization even if everyone is trying to do what they think is right.
If senior city staff and political leadership wants to clear the air with the public, it could come forward and tell the taxpayers how much all of this has cost taxpayers in legal costs and multiple staff payouts, which is easily into seven figures this term, once payouts, legal costs, and interim consulting costs are factored in. Of course, that doesn’t factor in lost productivity due to constant staff churn and delayed progress on civic objectives.
The mayor and senior consultants have a website, a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, an Instagram account, a Twitter account and a paid newspaper column through which they can look community members and taxpayers in the eye and provide a full and honest account of what has transpired, and describe a path forward. Every individual councillor also has free mass communication technology at his or her fingertips too.
The provincial government also needs to sit up here. The municipal governance framework is established by the province, and much provincial funding is directed through municipal governments. Is it satisfied with how COVID-19 relief funds, much of it yet unspent, has been disbursed through the city? Just one example.
To summarize, there are bigger issues in this world and the community that need our attention and focus, so get off our lawn (or at least start shoveling it) with these incomplete Friday afternoon releases designed to drag us into another toxic go-round that has nothing to do with politics, just internal toxicity at the city of leadership’s own creation. There’s major war in Ukraine, an opioid epidemic here, a worsening local housing crisis, it’s a spring powder weekend in Revelstoke, and we have better things to do with our time.
Stand before our previously very engaged community, provide your explanation, and answer their questions. Please don’t try to draw local media into yet another toxic cycle rooted in toxic interpersonal communication patterns.