Harrison governance crisis will leave local kids waiting for playground
“We’re not in a good situation any which way,” Harrison Hot Springs mayor Ed Wood recently admitted
Harrison Hot Springs governance crisis, and a lack of senior staff at the village hall (top right) will delay the acquisition of a new playground. 📷 Kyle Hislop/Shutterstock; Google Street View; Village of Harrison.
The job has everything: a top leadership position with the power to make a difference in a community; a life in a picturesque village near urban amenities; a six-figure salary.
It also will come with a whole lot of red flags.
Being Harrison Hot Springs’ next chief administrative officer sounds like a pretty swell job—if you don’t mind dealing with one of the province’s most dysfunctional councils on a daily basis.
Three months after the tiny municipal council asked the province for help, the situation at Harrison’s village hall has only grown more dire, with more staff departures. And while the village’s mayor says he hopes he and council can start to work together, the staff exodus is beginning to delay projects with a direct impact on residents—and children—in the community.
Harrison Hot Springs is running out of municipal staff.
Last Monday, Harrison Hot Springs Mayor Ed Wood announced that the municipality’s interim chief administrative officer, Kelly Ridley, had given notice that she would be leaving at the end of June. The CAO is the municipality’s most important official; at the person responsible for every other village employee, it’s the CAO’s job to both keep an eye on the village’s day-to-day operations, and to make sure that the municipality can fulfill the desires of council (and thus the public).
Ridley was filling in on a short-term basis for the village’s previous CAO, Madeline McDonald, who retired in February. She was part of an exodus that also saw the village’s deputy CAO—McDonald’s second-in-command—and the community services manager go on leave. Both have formally tendered their resignations over the past month or so.
The loss of three senior staff was a huge blow: the village only had seven positions that paid more than $75,000 in any one year. Now the situation is getting even worse. Not only is Ridley set to depart, but earlier this month, Mayor Ed Wood announced that the village’s chief financial officer Scott Schultz was quitting.
“We’re not in a good situation any which way,” Wood declared.
The departures came amid repeated clashes between Wood—a political newcomer elected last fall—and four councillors, including the previous mayor, Leo Facio.
As the councillors sought to pass motions asserting a lack of confidence in Wood, Wood in turn ruled them out of order in meetings, spoke about secret meetings held without him, and attempted at one point to have Facio and another councillor ejected for speaking out of turn.
The bickering and staff departures eventually led to an agreement, of sorts: council passed a motion asking the province to send its Inspector of Municipalities to help them better manage the village.
Politicians bicker, kids wait
The Inspector of Municipalities doesn’t generally do what Harrison hoped they would. But the province did hire a special “municipal adviser” in mid-March to provide guidance to.
That adviser is Ron Poole, a long-term municipal administrator who previously served as chief administrative officer for five different communities, including the District of Mission.
But Poole—whose initial term expires in a month—hasn’t been able to stop Ridley or Schultz from leaving and wasn’t able to lure back the on-leave administrators who chose to resign. And the departures have begun to have a tangible impact on the local government’s ability to function and provide amenities for its residents.
In early May, council signaled its general approval for a new playground at a small park. In doing so, they voted to ask staff to return in early June with more information on potential funding sources and additional options. (Staff had originally presented council with three different options, with costs ranging from $19,000 for a simple set of swings to $75,000 for a larger playground structure.)
Municipal councils frequently refer topics to staff for them to sort out the details. (Larger cities would normally just approve a budget and leave the details entirely to staff, while smaller municipalities often take a more hands-on approach.)
One councillor, Coun. Allen Jackson, wanted the village to move even more speedily, saying the village was “just kicking the can down the road here.”
“We’re not buying the Titanic,” he added. “We’re here to make decisions!”(Both Jackson and Wood voted against the move to refer the project back to staff.)
But two weeks later, at a meeting with only three councillors present, Wood joined with Michie Vidal to kick the can even further down the road. (Jackson objected.)
Wood said the village just didn’t have the staff to evaluate the playground options and costs so quickly. So the increasing numbers of families in Harrison will now have to wait for their municipal politicians to hire a new CAO and chief financial officer.
How long that will take will depend, in part, on just who wants to work every day with Harrison Hot Springs’ council.
Help (desperately) wanted
Recent Harrison council meetings have been more cordial than those in February and March, with less bickering and fewer accusations.
But the village’s ability to hire—and keep a new CAO and other important managers will reveal whether Harrison remains as dysfunctional as ever.
Wood admitted earlier this month that it was “unfortunate” that it had taken nearly six months to actively start looking for a new CAO.
He added: “It’s unfortunate that the council and the mayor here have not seen eye to eye over the last many months. I would hope that council and myself would put things behind us and we can assure that we can get some good staff members in here, help staff with what they need and get the village office back in good operation.”
But with the imminent departure of both its interim CAO and its chief financial officer, Harrison Hot Springs will need more than advice. It will need someone who can actually run a local government.
As of early May, operations manager Tyson Koch was filling in as the village’s deputy CAO. If no one is found before Findlay leaves, Koch would appear to be next in line to take over as CAO, leaving him with three of the municipality’s top jobs.
To that end, the district posted the CAO job on May 10 (just five days before Woods announced the imminent departure of the village’s interim head). The listing closes this Friday at 4pm.
The advertisement boasts of Harrison’s beauty while declaring that “due to a retirement, the Village is seeking an enthusiastic and versatile individual to join the management team as our new Chief Administrative Officer.”
Of course, there’s not much of a management team to join at the moment. Wood said he hopes the CAO will be the one to help fill the other positions, but he acknowledged that the other vacancies may not be filled after the top boss is hired.
As of last week Harrison also had open job listings for five different positions—it even needs a new receptionist to fill in an upcoming maternity leave vacancy.
As for the CAO position, the “versatility” mentioned in the ad.
A CAO is hired by, takes advice from, and needs the ongoing support of council at large, not the mayor individually. But the CAO also must be in constant communication with the mayor and as the two must have a positive working relationship. (Typically, the two jointly run meetings.)
So for any semblance of normalcy to return to the village, the incoming CAO will have to appease both Harrison’s mayor and the four councillors frequently opposed to him.
The last CAO made about $140,000 a year. Time will tell if that’s enough compensation for having to fix one of BC’s most problematic local governments.