Former CAO calls inspection a “witch hunt “

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The municipal inspection report released by Municipal Affairs Aug. 30 put Westlock County under the microscope, but councillors weren’t the only ones under scrutiny.

The name of Peter Kelly, the former chief administrative officer who served from September 2014 to March 2016, popped up 39 times in the 116-page document.

The report concluded Kelly breached the Municipal Government Act (MGA) on a number of occasions, allegedly shredded documents and worked simultaneously for the county and the City of Charlottetown.

Kelly is currently the CAO of Charlottetown, PEI, but during his time at Westlock County, inspectors said he took action without council resolution, as he did when negotiating the Horizon North industrial land lease and authorizing site improvements. For more on that revelation, see an upcoming edition of the Westlock News.

“Mr. Kelly seemed to feel that direction given in camera was sufficient for action,” the report states, which Kelly echoed several times in the report, including when he issued a staff-wide severance deal early in his tenure. As a result, the report said Kelly breached a section of the MGA that requires council to act by a resolution, or bylaw.

The report also detailed Kelly bypassing managers to direct a clerk to create and cancel certain invoices for the Horizon North project.

At other times, the report said Kelly didn’t exercise reasonable oversight of projects and told inspectors he “wasn’t going to question the numbers.”

The report also included one comment from a council member who held Kelly in high regard and said he was “very responsible.”

Within Kelly’s first month he rolled out a voluntary three-month severance package to all employees if they quit their jobs. In January 2015, the Alberta Labour Relations Board determined Westlock County breached the Alberta Labour Relations Code, as the severance package had not been negotiated with the bargaining agent and local CUPE prior to the offer.

The offer and its repercussions also weren’t discussed with the county’s finance department, human resources or legal counsel, and Kelly had refused to meet the CUPE.

According to a council member in the report, the package wasn’t meant for all employees.

“The result was that staff appreciation and culture reached an all-time low at that point,” observed inspector Shari-Anne Doolaege, of Strategic Steps Inc.

The report noted the severance offer caused a tense working environment at the county office, where many staff felt uncertain about their job status and were uncomfortable working under Kelly’s leadership. However, some were said to have not been overly surprised and saw it as another step in an alleged “council vendetta to clean house.”

Within the same timeframe, the report said records showed Kelly received vacation pay at the start of his employment, rather than earning it.

“This was apparently negotiated with the council,” the report said. “By providing vacation in advance, the council acted in an improvident, spendthrift manner and the county may not have been able to collect these funds if the employee had left the organization before the vacation pay was actually earned.”

Documents and policies

Inspectors also found poor records management at the county and several missing documents related to agreements, council minutes and resolutions. Some documents were never located during the inspection, including the signed Horizon North deal.

Except for the finance department, inspectors noticed that document shredding logs for the last few years were inconsistent.

In one interview with a staff member, the report said Kelly had put a policy in place for the type of documents that should be kept and for how long.

“Then he started having the past EA (executive assistant) shred documents and was adamant that it all needed to be done before the new CAO started,” the employee said.

Several county policies were also reviewed in 2015 under Kelly, who recruited a person from Nova Scotia to update policies and bylaws.

The report said staff members were unsure if this person was an employee of the county or working under a contract.

County managers also shared that they had limited involvement in policy reviews of their departments. Kelly told inspectors the person was hired under an 18-month contract that could be extended, or shortened as necessary.

“I sought out an individual that had the known qualifications and skill sets that I required,” he said. “More policy updates and new policies were created in this timeframe than in any other previous comparative defined timeframes.”

E-mail records showed this individual and Kelly were both working on a consulting project for the City of Charlottetown at the same time they were working for Westlock County.

Kelly told inspectors he provided 1.5 hours of unpaid overtime for every hour that the individual assisted on the Charlottetown project — three days for the individual and 45-50 hours in unpaid overtime from Kelly.

The overtime in-lieu Kelly did for the county was done on evenings and weekends, he said. Kelly also brought in an engineer from Nova Scotia with Alberta licensing on the Tawatinaw ski chalet.

The report noted that the county obtained engineering services through a sole-source contract, rather than a bidding process, which Kelly chalked up to tight timelines.

The records show that contract costs totalled $31,970 from December 2014 to September 2015.

CAO performance

Although Kelly underwent an annual CAO performance evaluation, inspectors recommended a review of the process.

“We heard that these lacked meaningful content and some councillors rushed to put down a number without taking time to give reasons,” Doolaege said. “Also, the evaluation template was not linked to organizational performance.”

Kelly calls report biased

Kelly responded to the inspection in a statement, calling the report “lacking, disappointing and incomplete at best, often appearing as inaccurate and biased.”

Kelly said he found it somewhat appalling and disconcerting that investigators, administration and county staff couldn’t find a large amount of information and documents.

“This seems to be a recurring phenomenon in that documents prior to my employment and after my employment have gone missing,” he said. “Upon my arrival, much documentation appeared to be missing concerning the ski hill and the gravel pit projects. Subsequently upon my departure from the county, documents that I left apparently have gone missing or been destroyed.”

As a result, he said the inspectors relied on unsubstantiated information from unidentified individuals and staff innuendo to base their report on, and focused on his tenure rather than issues that occurred prior to his employment.

He added that the oversights by other administrators or management were not given the same attention in the report.

“The investigation team also presents their assertions as fact with confusing languages such as

‘seems to,’

‘appears to,’

‘suggests.’ This wording without documentation appears to suggest a possible bias,” he said.

“Was this a selective witch hunt to find a scapegoat? From what I see, it appears so. What about the other issues and/or individuals? A glaring void of information.”

In particular, he said the Westlock County’s gravel pit was a prime example of a concerning issue he brought up several times in interviews but was ignored in the report.

Back in 2008, Westlock County walked away from a viable gravel pit that ended up in the hands of the Pibroch Hutterite Colony. The county had to come up with a reclamation plan of the site but opted to forego it with what little gravel remained in the pit. The province granted the lease to the colony and the pit turned out to contain significant levels of gravel. The survey findings and the circumstances of that deal remain unclear to this day.

However, Kelly finished that he had made mistakes but never acted out of malice or stood to gain from his actions.

“I could go through the report line by line and in most cases provide a different account of what happened,” he said. “But at this point, obviously some have made up their minds about me.”

Kelly said he wouldn’t comment further.

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