The art of keeping secrets when firing top bureaucrats

Thom Barker doesn’t like secrets in government and thinks town council shouldn’t either

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The day after I arrived back in Smithers following my 7,690-kilometre trek from St. Anthony, N.L. across this stunning nation we call Canada, the first two stories that landed on my desk were an issue with taxis and the firing of the town’s chief administrative officer (CAO).

Coincidentally, the first time I arrived in Smithers from Ottawa — a mere 4,560 km away — in August 2005, one of the very first stories I did was about taxis.

Then, it was the cab companies — I believe there was more than one at that time — complaining about the Hudson Bay Lodge running a shuttle service to and from the airport for its guests.

The CAO getting fired without cause story came much later in my original tenure with The Interior News.

The names and details are different, but there are always a few things you can count on with a story like this.

Then, as now, nobody was voluntarily giving up any information until we started asking. Then, as now, it took a freedom of information (FOI) request to get the pertinent information, i.e., how much it cost taxpayers. Then, as now, the cost was significant. Then as now, due diligence required that I contact, or try to contact, the affected parties for the inevitable “no comment.” Then as now, the no comments are predicated on a non-disclosure agreement.

To the Town’s credit, this time the FOI process was painless. I fired off a simple email to the acting CAO, who processed it within hours.

Also to the Town’s credit, this time they did not engage in a lengthy and costly organizational review that found no cause to dismiss the top bureaucrat only to turn around and do it anyway.

In 2007, I calculated it cost each and every Smithereen approximately $78 to get rid of Wallace Mah. In 2019, we’re only on the hook for $18 to pay out Anne Yanciw.

We’re still left with the most pertinent question of all, however. We know the who, the what, the where, the when and the how, but the real question is the why. It is always the why.

There is no question CAO, or town manager as they are often called, is a hazardous profession. A quick Google search turns up hundreds of results on top administrator firings and they almost always coincide with elections. This makes some sense. As the primary liaison between elected officials and staff, and changing bosses every three to four years, relationships can be tenuous.

Consequently, being fired as CAO doesn’t necessarily carry the same stigma as termination from other jobs. Smithers, for example, had no trouble hiring Yanciw even though she had previously been let go by the Village of Valemount.

As a journalist and a taxpayer, I don’t like secrets. Neither should Smithers council because in the absence of facts, people tend to make up their own.

If council decides to hide behind a policy of not commenting on personnel issues, though, there isn’t much we can do about it except go to the polls next time around and try to find someone who will actually implement transparency, not just talk it on the hustings.

I get that there are certain things — i.e. medical issues — that fall under privacy regulations, but to compel another affected party’s silence with a non-disclosure agreement is not fair and quite possibly illegal. I am not an expert on contract law by any means, but after 14 years of covering the courts, I have become quite familiar with the overriding law of the land, that being the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

If the other affected party chooses to also feed the rumour mill with their silence, however, there is certainly nothing we can do about that.

Of course, aside from the possible consequences of not abiding by a non-disclosure agreement, there are other potential pitfalls for a job-seeking former CAO. Other councils in other towns also like keeping secrets and may think twice about hiring someone who may some day be in a position to spill their beans.

Op-ed writing is a kind of catharsis. Now that I’ve got the irritation of people keeping secrets off my chest, let the gossip begin.

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