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OPINION: Spending authority led to Soltis’ downfall

There are many who are celebrating the departure of city manager Kathleen Soltis last week.

In case you missed it, she and the city have ‘mutually agreed’ to part ways.

But before we break out the champagne and crackers we should take a look at where we’ve been. Soltis ascended to the city manager’s role in 2015 following the contentious, acrimonious, and confrontational Beth James era in the city’s top job (who can forget Bill Gaal parking snowplows during a blizzard as a bargaining tactic with the union or James arbitrarily increasing the city’s manager’s budget by 38 per cent or Lyn Hall finding out at a soccer game that James had laid off 11 staff)?

One of the first things Hall, and the newly-elected council of the day, did was come to a ‘mutual agreement’ with Beth James and put Soltis in the job. Many felt Soltis should have gotten the job prior to James anyway.

Say what you will about the Soltis era at City Hall, but it was without the acrimony, divisiveness, and confrontation of her predecessor. And that was definitely an improvement.

Some have focused on the high salary of Soltis and her management team as a bone of contention. Soltis was the highest paid employee on staff, receiving $265,725 in wages and a vacation payout of $12,037 for total remuneration of $277,763 in 2019. That compares to 2018 when she received a wage of $256,930, a vacation payout of $6,276 for total remuneration of $263,207.

Yes, she’s well paid, but that’s not her fault. Council hires her and council negotiates, and agrees to, her contract (including the contentious, and very generous overtime pay that came to light in the 2017 wildfire season). She did, however, restructure senior management at City Hall … giving everyone fancy new titles and a salary boost. That’s on her. But it’s also on city council. They gave her the authority to do it.

Soltis’ salary, and those of senior staff, are a concern … for sure … but they’re also a bit of a red herring.

The real issue is how the city, and by default, its finances, are being managed. And, from that, who is accountable.

The spate of budget overruns on city projects has become almost laughable. I’m not an engineer or a planner, but I could have told the city that an underground parking lot downtown is going to have water issues. But, here we are, adding millions to the project because no one had the foresight to envision that building an underground parking lot a stone’s throw from the province’s largest river might lead to water issues. And, to top that off, no one apparently knew that fibre optic cables would have to be moved as well. Did no one remember ‘call before you dig?’

And before that there was the firehall, the other downtown parkade, the Willow Cale Road Bridge, etc. etc.

Soltis, consequently, signed off on the budget overruns … because she could. Council gave her the authority to do so. Prior to last year, Soltis could spend up to $1 million without council’s approval. That, she convinced council, was too restrictive on large multi-million dollar projects. So they changed it, giving the city manager the authority to spend up to five per cent of the city budget without council’s approval … about $9 million.

And that’s where she fell out of favour with council. While she was well within her right to give such approvals, she should have been giving a heads-up to city council when they were happening.

Council, too often, was finding out about budget overruns at the same time the public was … when a city council agenda was released. When the parkade overrun really came to light, Soltis told council the overrun had been listed in a finance and audit committee package last November. In other words, ‘it’s not my fault you didn’t read the report.’

And that was likely last straw. She didn’t have to highlight the cost overrun to council last November, but a simple heads up would likely have been appreciated. Council are the only people the public can hold accountable and most councillors are fine with that … as long as they know what’s going on.

The crux of the issue between Soltis and council has been the amount city manager is allowed to spend without going to council for approval. Council should amend that amount downward prior to hiring the next city manager.

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