By Mike Williscraft
“If you work for the Town of Grimsby, no matter who you are, your job is not safe. You could be the Pope and in charge of a daily prayer and you could be gone tomorrow.”
That comment came last week from a Town of Grimsby employee who asked that their name not be used for fear of reprisal and came after the entire, three-person finance department at Grimsby’s town hall was fired last Tuesday.
The next day, Grimsby’s operations manager was also dismissed.
All were regarded as valuable, hard-working employees by co-workers past and present as well as some members of Grimsby’s current council and past members of council.
Last week, NewsNow featured an article noting a possible whistleblower policy which had been in a holding pattern for well over a year. It was to go to staff for their input, so has not been implemented as yet.
This is relevant because many of those terminated by CAO Harry Schlange were among those who made complaints against Schlange which precipitated a third party investigation in the summer of 2020.
After news of the terminations came to light, a special meeting of Grimsby council was convened so an explanation from the CAO would be heard in closed session.
When council rose, Coun. Kevin Ritchie had a prewritten motion which was approved in a 5-4 vote with Ritchie, Councilllors Dave Kadwell, Randy Vaine, Dave Sharpe and John Dunstall voting in favour. Mayor Jeff Jordan, along with Councillors Lianne Vardy, Reg Freake and Dorothy Bothwell opposed.
The motion presented by Ritchie read:
“Whereas in 2019 Council established their priorities before
interviewing candidates for the CAO’s position,
And Whereas in 2019 Council committed to a CAO and supported the CAO to review the
Organization and make organizational changes,
And Whereas in 2020 and 2021 Council continued to support our CAO in these organizational changes,
And Whereas these organizational changes are to fulfill council’s expectations of building a high
performance team for our residence and for the community of the Town of Grimsby,
And Whereas these organizational changes are Human Resources matter, so Council and the Town of Grimsby will not be providing any further comment,
Therefore be it resolved that the update from the Town of Grimsby CAO be received.”
Prior to the meeting getting underway, Jordan read a brief statement, “On Tuesday, March 30, a decision by the CAO resulted in the termination of three senior level employees. This was a decision solely by Mr. Schlange. There was no resolution or council support.”
Vaine challenged the mayor’s comment by noting council had given Schlange carte blanche do as he chose when he was hired in Fall 2019.
“You started off with a statement saying that the CAO made, uh, he’s legally entitled to under his contract and you’re saying prove it now?” asked Vaine.
“No, I’m merely stating a fact, there was no resolution or council support,” Jordan responded.
“He doesn’t need it,” Vaine retorted. “His contract that we gave him says he is allowed to do it.”
“I didn’t say he needed it or didn’t need it. I was merely getting the facts out,” noted Jordan.
After more than an hour in closed session, Ritchie was ready with a prepared and lengthy motion, an oddity for council’s traditional practices.
“Is it normal practice for a member of council to bring a motion to receive something that was discussed in closed? Or would the motion just be to receive the information provided in closed?” asked Bothwell.
“Yes, I would feel happier to just receive the information in closed. I’m not going to support this motion,” added Jordan.
“I would just ask the clerk if it was normal practice to add wording in there that was outside what was discussed in closed session,” Bothwell suggested.
Clerk Sarah Kim confirmed the motion was out of the norm for council procedure.
“Usually the motion is to receive closed session updates, but if Coun. Ritchie wants a motion to amend, it doesn’t disclose exactly what was discussed in closed, so that would be up for council to decide,” said Kim.
Prior to the vote, a request for an amendment from Sharpe brought about a source of entertainment for Vaine.
Freake asked if Sharpe had a copy of Ritchie’s motion prior to Ritchie presenting it.
“You’re acting a little paranoid,” said Sharpe.
“I am a little paranoid,” Freake shot back.
“You are, but you admitted that, but I don’t have a copy of this,” said Sharpe, while Vaine rocked in his chair in full laughter.
Freake said after the meeting that pre-written motions have shown up at council meetings with unfortunate regularity in the current term, particularly on hotly disputed items, some passed with little debate and, typically, in the 5-4 vote to which many have grown accustomed.
After the meeting, all members of council were asked to comment on their support or opposition to Ritchie’s motion and the termination of key town staff.
Only Kadwell responded to multiple emails and texts from the five who voted in support.
“My only comment is supporting the resolution that was passed in open session after the closed session meeting,” texted Kadwell.
Jordan said the firings were wrong.
“I am deeply disappointed in the decision of the CAO to terminate three very dedicated senior employees of the municipality. These employees went above and beyond to ensure the Town successfully stayed ahead of the economic impacts of COVID-19 and in recent weeks received a shower of accolades from council and the CAO for their hard work on the unanimously approved 2021 budget,” said Jordan.
“In my personal opinion, the decision to release these employees was not justified.”
Vardy said Ritchie’s motion was somewhat of an answer to Jordan’s opening comment about the dismissals not having the approval of council.
“I believe the intent of Coun. Ritchie’s motion was to give cover to the actions of the CAO,” said Vardy.
“I had advised the CAO in writing prior to the terminations that I strongly objected to his proposal and felt it would be damaging to the effective functioning of town operations and would further damage staff morale.”
Bothwell, too, noted the motion proposed by Ritchie was not only more than it should have been, but was also not accurate as to what was discussed in closed session.
“The resolution prepared by Coun. Ritchie does not accurately reflect the closed session discussion and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts and views of all councillors,” said Bothwell.
“I have no concern with the statement that the update be received. As there was no resolution passed in closed session, this motion goes further than required to acknowledge the receipt of information discussed.”
Freake echoed sentiments offered by Bothwell that Ritchie’s motion was inaccurate at best.
“It was a surprise that a seemingly prewritten resolution citing unopposed administration approval to the CAO was brought forward at the last minute after an intense, special closed-session council meeting appropriately called by Mayor Jordan. The purpose of the meeting was outlined briefly in open session and, although the subject was legally sensitive, it was also clear that it was related to the termination of three senior staff from our finance department,” noted Freake.
“There were a number of concerns related to potential legal and financial exposure to the Town as a result of the terminations of these same three senior financial officers all at one time. Each had exemplary track records and two of them were long term employees. Therefore, the CAO was invited to explain his justification in a closed session. The resolution to receive and endorse the outcome of the closed session didn’t accurately reflect my concerns as an elected representative of the town.”