Firing squad: Whitehorse’s mayor and coucil risk voter wrath for costly string of dismissals

The revolving door for upper management of the City of Whitehorse continues to spin after years of relative stability.

The revolving door for upper management of the City of Whitehorse continues to spin after years of relative stability.

When Dennis Shewfelt retired from the city’s top administrative role as city manager in 2012, he had been in the job for seven years. His then lieutenants — Robert Fendrick and Brian Crist — had also occupied their respective jobs for many years. At that point the city had not witnessed a major firing in some time.

The five years that followed, however, have been tumultuous. First Shewfelt’s replacement, Stan Westby, was sacked in late 2013 after being on medical leave for many months. A year and half later, the axe fell again, this time on Fendrick and Crist. And now in recent weeks we’ve learned of yet another change at the top as Christine Smith was terminated from her position as city manager.

The official line in each case has been that these are personnel matters and for legal and privacy reasons no explanation would be provided. All we as the public have been left with are rumour and speculation. The settlement terms for the latest firing — like those that came before — will be negotiated quietly between lawyers. Everyone in the know will heed the legal advice they will inevitably receive and decline further comment.

But with so much turnover it begs some speculation about how much these firings are costing city taxpayers.

We know that in the cases of Fendrick, Crist and Smith the dismissals were “without cause” and that each received (or will receive) a generous severance package.

The Westby firing was different. He was fired “with cause” — meaning the city was willing to stand by legally sufficient reasons for dismissal, which means no severance pay. It is always possible that the city had to pay some sort of undisclosed settlement to avoid litigation. After all, it’s often cheaper to pay someone money to go away than to undergo the costly and potentially embarrassing exercise of proving that you had cause.

In the case of Smith’s firing, the amount of her entitlement seems pretty clear. The city manager bylaw says she will get six months pay plus two additional weeks for each year of employment. Since we know she has been at the job for just over two years and is receiving a salary of at least $180,000 a year that works out to somewhere north of $100,000 in severance pay.

The bylaw further states that “the city’s obligations related to the employment of the city manager and this bylaw are fully discharged and the rights of the city manager fully and fairly satisfied upon (payment of severance).” This implies that Smith’s payout will be all she will get unless some employment lawyer can come up with a creative way to get around that clause.

Calculating the amount that Crist and Fendrick received is not quite the same straightforward exercise. Unlike Smith, who had worked at the city for just over two years, the two were long-time City employees — both having worked there for 16 years. And as far as I can tell the bylaw that would govern their employment doesn’t have the strong language about their rights being “fully and fairly satisfied.”

There are a lot of factors that go into determining the amount of pay in lieu of notice an employee will receive, but given that length of service, both likely walked away with more than a year’s worth of pay.

We’ll probably never know the exact amounts. After all, the first rule of firing an employee is to shut your mouth. Non-disclosure is common practice in severance pay settlements.

Unfortunately when it comes to firing of senior management in government, the litigation interests of the employer come into conflict with the public’s right to know what their elected representatives are up to and why they are spending taxpayer’s money on severance packages for top bureaucrats.

While the Crist and Fendrick firings were ostensibly the work of the now-former city manager, and Smith’s firing received the blessing of five of seven members of council, voters have a tendency to look to the top for someone to blame.

With four significant firings in a span of less than four years, at what point does this become an issue for the mayor? How much benefit of the doubt do we give that each of these firings was done for good reason and was worth the price tag?

After all, while these severance payouts are far from the largest items in the city’s $73 million operations budget, Whitehorse ratepayers will still part of their property tax bill going towards severance pay.

The next time city voters head to the polls, the mayor may face — shall we say — more robust competition. And his opponents may make the high rate of staff turnover an issue, especially if the pace continues. And it would be one that the mayor could not defend himself against without jeopardizing the city’s legal position.

Whatever the reason, the mayor ought to hope that we see a return to the stability of an earlier era.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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