On May 11, a 4-3 split vote by town council determined the Town of Taber will be contracting a headhunting firm for $20,000 to aid in the search for a replacement for the position of director of corporate services, which was recently vacated following the resignation of Dale Culler.
Leaving aside the questionable financial implications of this decision, which will see thousands in taxpayer dollars funneled outside of the community to a human resources firm, it would seem to raise the spectre of trust — or indeed, a lack of it — in town administration.
It is worth noting the Town of Taber already has a human resources department which is responsible for searching out candidates for vacant positions. Not only that, this department was already engaged in the hiring process for weeks in advance of the decision made by town council — which begs the question of why now?
The answer to that is only known to the minds of our seven elected representatives, as any preliminary discussion of the idea was conducted in closed session. A convenient device, closed session has become a favourite of this council in attempting to keep discussion of controversial issues outside of the prying eyes of the general public, despite strict guidelines under the Municipal Government Act which expressly state in camera portions of meetings should be kept to an absolute minimum.
While municipal councils must have the ability to discuss certain issues in private — such as land, legal or labour — there is a huge difference between discussing what might only bear a tenuous link to exceptions under the MGA, and actual legitimate closed session issues. An unscrupulous interpretation could see virtually anything justified under the broad and loose terms of “land, legal or labour” and cloaked in the secrecy of a closed session.
We would suggest the above lines have been blurred significantly on a number of occasions by this council, if only judging by some of the resolutions which have been passed following these closed sessions.
Speculation on the nature of these discussions is unfortunately a necessary evil, because no record is made of closed session discussions, and in some cases no resolutions are even passed in subsequent open session. All the public is privy to — and it is important to remember this elected body represents you, and is effectively making decisions with your money — is a vague descriptor under the FOIPP Act citing an exception.
All of which is merely a sidenote to the issue at hand. CAO Greg Birch has gone on record indicating support for the hiring of a headhunting firm, as a way to increase the pool of candidates for Culler’s vacant position.
And he is right in stating that it can be a relatively common practice when searching for candidates for higher-echelon administrative staff. Fair enough, but this tends to ignore the fact that administration had already invested time and effort into the job search — efforts which will be handed to this firm on a silver platter — while taxpayers will be stuck with a questionable $20,000 bill and virtually nothing in the way of explanation.
And we will of course have no way of knowing if the final selectee is among names already submitted to the town prior to this firm’s introduction to the situation — which would make the expense only doubly frustrating for fiscally-conscious taxpayers.
All of which comes back to issues of trust. It has been no secret this council has come into friction with town administration over the past two years, and has gotten into the habit of routinely ignoring administration’s recommendations. While elected bodies should never be too strongly ruled by the influence of their bureaucracies, this doesn’t do much in the area of trust. If an elected body regularly ignores the recommendations of its bureaucracy, then what purpose does that bureaucracy ultimately serve?
Council’s apparent answer to that might be no purpose. The recent firings of community services director Rob Cressman and engineering manager Jordi Nickolet — if nothing else decisions which must have had tacit approval by council — would suggest council’s trust in town administration is rapidly disintegrating. Nor are we likely to learn just what these firings might have cost the community in terms of severance, but a fair guess would probably range well into the six figures.
A loss of trust is a double-edged sword which cuts both ways. While not only contributing to an increasingly toxic workplace atmosphere, it can lead to an environment of mutual distrust where individuals who are paid for their expertise and recommendations will be constantly second-guessing themselves and their decisions as they are increasingly brought under a political microscope.
A working environment where managers are left wondering if they might be the next candidate for the proverbial chopping block isn’t likely to be a watershed of positivity in future, and the potential negative implications are obvious in scope.