Winter is coming  |  George Le Masurier photo

Did the Comox Town Council pay their CAO $350,000 just to go away? Why?

Oct 18, 2019 | Commentary, News

By George Le Masurier

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.”
— Author Margaret Atwood, quoted in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.)

 

The firing of Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan is just one part of the turmoil surrounding the Town of Comox. And it might not even be the town’s most expensive headache.

Unhappy public works employees, false allegations carelessly publicized, two expensive Supreme Court lawsuits, a road project that won’t end and a fired CAO walking away with a pile of cash.

Comox Town Council must have been desperate to get rid of their long-time CAO. According to a reliable source within town hall, councillors gave him a whopping severance package totalling $350,000.

Council members aren’t talking about why or how much, and definitive confirmation of the amount won’t come until at least the town releases its 2019 financial statements. But our source is somebody who would know.

The provincial Public Sector Employers Act generously caps severance pay at 18 months after five years of service. That only applies to executives in health authorities, K-12 and post-secondary education institutions and Crown corporations. It doesn’t apply to municipalities. Small towns like Comox should be much further down the pay-out scale.

But even on that basis, Kanigan’s 2018 salary of $140,028, plus $8,056 in expenses, would have put his golden parachute around $210,000.

So what was the extra $140,000 for?

Did Kanigan have some good buddies in high places who approved a sweet deal in his contract? Did counmcil just want him gone in a hurry and they didn’t have a strong enough case to warrant or withstand a protracted wrongful dismissal suit? Did they pay him extra so some dirty laundry didn’t get hung out publicly? We don’t know.

One thing we do know is that Kanigan’s firing had nothing to do with the fake allegations that the town’s public works employees were harassing Highland High School students. That story should have never been splashed across the front page of the local newspaper. It was an anonymous letter and the paper did no investigation that corroborated any of the allegations.

It was probably written by someone with a motive to cast nefarious suspicions on public works employees, and it wasn’t worth the space or time spent on it.

That said, there have been personnel problems in the town’s public works department that may yet end in the courts. And the basic road reconstruction of Noel Avenue has taken way too long — so far, all summer and most of the fall. It continues to disrupt a private school and a residential neighborhood.

Somebody seriously miscalculated something.

Kanigan’s departure also creates some problems for the town. Foremost, it makes the town’s petition to the BC Supreme Court to alter Mack Laing’s trust agreement quite a bit more tenuous. The town wants to tear down Laing’s iconic home, called Shakesides, and spend the famous naturalist’s money on other things.

But only two people have submitted affidavits to the court defending the town against the mountain of evidence compiled by the Mack Laing Heritage Society: Richard Kanigan and former finance direct Don Jacquest. And guess what? Neither of them are still employed by the town.

That alone might not be fatal to the case. But what if the BC Attorney General’s office suddenly realized that among the hundreds of pages of documents submitted by the Mack Laing Society there was evidence of questionable handling of procedure and critical information? And what if that also happens to be something similar to the reasons council fired their CAO and paid him a king’s ransom to keep whatever it is a secret?

Last spring, the Attorney General requested a hiatus in the Mack Laing court case. That delay has now turned into five months and counting.

What makes that so odd was Comox Mayor Russ Arnott’s anxiousness to settle the matter. He railroaded a quasi public hearing last March to rubber-stamp the town’s plan, although he forgot to consult with the K’omoks First Nation. And then the mayor was in such a rush to get back into the courtroom that he didn’t even want to finish the 90-day abeyance agreed to by council.

Yet, here we are eight months later, going on nine, and no court dates are scheduled. No negotiations are taking place. Nothing. It’s dead air.

Except, of course, there’s the matter of the huge legal bill the town rang up trying — and failing — to keep the Mack Laing Heritage Society evidence out of the Supreme Court’s hands. That bill could be getting close to what Kanigan’s golden parachute should have been.

And then there’s the matter of the $250,000 lawsuit over the town polluting Golf Creek and failing to take corrective measures in how its deals with stormwater, despite repeated recommendations from more than one consulting firm.

So, who knows what’s really going on? But it has begun to look like a more deeply rooted problem.

 

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