Tense discussion around council table on policy

A controversial policy is now part of Penticton’s operating manual, but not without a tense discussion during a council meeting.

A controversial policy is now part of Penticton’s operating manual, but not without a tense discussion about its exact meaning during last week’s council meeting.

Mayor Dan Ashton and city manager Annette Antoniak say the intent of the “One Employee of Council” policy was only to clarify the staff hierarchy and describe Antoniak’s status, not to prevent councillors from talking directly to staff.

However, Couns. Helen Konanz, John Vassilaki and, initially, Wes Hopkin, disagreed strongly.

They felt the wording of the new policy seemed to disconnect them from city staff, instead funnelling everything through the city manager, and a strict reading of it didn’t leave room for the kind of flexibility that Ashton and Antoniak were talking about.

“Every time I read through this it makes me more uncomfortable,” said Coun. Helen Konanz. “It basically says I am not allowed to speak to staff members.”

Ashton interrupted Konanz to say that councillors were more than welcome to talk to staff members under the policy, which he felt was mainly to prevent a council member from giving direction to staff, rather than through the city manager.

The two sections that most concerned Konanz, Vassilaki and Hopkin, came in both the summary and the body of the policy.

• “This model identifies the city manager as council’s only employee; all other city employees report (directly or indirectly) to the city manager rather than to council. The city manager is the link between policy makers (council) and policy implementers (staff).”

• “All council directives, correspondence, and requests for information on behalf of the city will be channeled through the city manager who will forward to the appropriate staff and ensure follow-up actions.”

“If it is plainly read it does seem to imply the Chief Administrative Officer has a tremendous amount of authority to control information. At the same time, it is important that the CAO know all the requests for information that are going to city employees, so that no one is blindsided,” said Hopkin.

Hopkin ended his opposition when the policy was reworded slightly, dropping — at his suggestion — the phrase “and requests for information.”

“It says to me that I am not to speak to staff members. This is what I am reading here,” said Konanz, who felt that it would bottleneck the system if councillors were only able to speak to city manager.

“I understand that the intent is to smooth out the system or to possibly protect staff members. But I was elected in November to get the job done and if it means I need to speak to staff members to get jobs done, I will,” said Konanz. “What worries me about this is that it also says that staff is not allowed to speak to me. If there’s a concern or they want to talk to me, they should be able to. It’s not like a regular business or company.”

Antoniak, who’s position as city manager is at the heart of the disputed policy, disagreed with Konanz’ reading.

“That’s not actually what it says. It says I am council’s one employee,” she said, arguing that this type of policy is used in a number of other communities as well as some of the crown corporations she has been CEO of. “That is what it says in my job description for which I was hired. This is the policy that confirms that. Never has this council not been able to talk to staff or vice versa. I don’t believe you can cite one instance.”

Ashton backed Antoniak up, adding that it would never be the policy of council to forbid council from interacting with staff, but there had been problems during previous councils, and he felt a policy was needed.

“With all respect, I think this could be misinterpreted in the future and cause a lot of problem within council. If a different CAO is sitting there, he or she may not see it the same way,” said Vassilaki, who agreed there had been problems during past councils, on both staff and councillor sides. But a restrictive policy, he continued, would eventually lead to bogging down the system.

“We are treated like a bunch of kids that we are not going to be able to talk to the staff and say the right thing. I like to take care of some things myself,” said Vassilaki.

Konanz also argued the policy was not needed.

“I just don’t think that this particular addition to our policy manual needs to happen. We all need to know that we need to be respectful to our staff, that we need to come to you (Antoniak), preferably,” she said. “We don’t need to be voting on something that tells us we can’t speak to staff.”

The policy was adopted by council after a four to two vote, with Hopkin joining Ashton and Couns. Andrew Jakubeit and Garry Litke in support of the policy. Couns. Konanz and Vassilaki remained opposed, while Sentes was absent.