End of the line for Soltis was long overdue

When Kathleen Soltis became city manager at the City of Prince George in March 2015, she was the right person at the right time

A 29-year city employee, the past 17 years as the city’s financial director, from a pioneer family that had come to the area before Prince George was even incorporated, she was just what local government and a brand-new mayor – Lyn Hall - needed to calm the waters after the difficult tenure of Mayor Shari Green and city manager Beth James.

She was busy even during her short time as interim city manager, bringing back Chris Bone – exiled under the James regime – to the social planning role.

By May, Rob Van Adrichem came down from UNBC, leaving his role as the university’s vice-president of external relations to occupy a newly-created role as the city’s director of external relations.

The pace during the summer and fall 2015 was frantic and projects long held back were finally approved.

It wasn’t perfect, however. The new city council and city manager decided to dissolve Initiatives Prince George and bring the city’s economic development arm in house but they handled it clumsily, approving a 2.5 per cent increase to their budget in March and then closing them down in June. IPG’s board of directors, a high-powered, experienced group of local business leaders, which included former UNBC president Charles Jago, Doug Bell of Northern Lights Estate Winery, Bob Redden of EDI Environmental Dynamics, then Citizen publisher Colleen Sparrow Greg Stewart of Sinclar Group Forest Products, were treated poorly. 

The growing number of closed-door meetings, hinting at the lack of transparency to come under the leadership of Hall and Soltis, was also an early red flag.

By the end of 2015, the honeymoon was over as city council faced tough choices and competing interests.

Behind the scenes efforts finally led to the July 2016 announcement that the long-dormant hotel project next to the Prince George Public Library, an eyesore during the 2015 Canada Winter Games, would finally be completed.

Not mentioned, however, was where the money came from to kickstart the project. It didn’t come from the pockets of private developers but from the city ploughing $3.2 million from its downtown revitalization account into the project and asking for more from the Northern Development Initiative Trust. The NDIT turned down that request and raised alarms about the financial risk of the project, which were brushed off at city hall. All of that came to light in a story by The Citizen’s Samantha Wright Allen in December 2016 that earned her the 2017 Ma Murray Award for business writing from the B.C./Yukon Community Newspapers Association.

Worse, Soltis admitted the project wouldn’t have resumed without the city’s investment as backing for the private developers.

Then it was revealed that Hall wanted to be transparent about the city’s financial involvement in both the Marriott and Riverbend but Soltis disagreed, worried about how that might be perceived by the public instead of embracing the opportunity to be open about how local tax dollars were being spent. When further questions were asked by The Citizen, no additional information was forthcoming, another warning sign of what was to come.

By February 2017, power was being consolidated in the bureaucracy, with mayor and council signing off on new policy that would allow city officials to make all purchases without political oversight, so long as those expenditures lined up with council’s overall financial plan.

The wheels continued to fall off the bus – literally - as 2017 wore on. That spring, mayor and council were left holding the bag on the ridiculous idea of building a transit facility at the bottom of University Hill, at the west end of 18thAvenue. To the surprise of no one except senior city employees, area residents who frequently use that area to access Ginter’s Meadow were outraged. Grudgingly, city council bent under the public pressure and backed away from the plan.

The beginning of the end for Soltis as city manager should have been the revelation, which didn’t come out until the summer of 2018, that she had restructured the senior management team, expanding it and giving everyone new job titles for doing pretty much the same work as before but with handsome pay raises.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the 2017 Statements of Financial Information were hiding an even bigger political embarrassment: that Soltis and her senior staff had collected overtime at twice their hourly rates (as opposed to time-and-a-half paid to the city’s unionized employees) during the 2017 Cariboo wildfires evacuation crisis. 

It took another three weeks of digging before dollar figures could be attached and the numbers were shocking. Soltis herself billed 70 hours of overtime at $235.72 an hour for a total of $16,500.40, over and above her regular pay.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, a 2017 consultant’s report reviewing the wages of senior city staff in comparison with similar-sized municipalities around B.C. had the gall to suggest Soltis deserved a raise.

Instead of asking the city manager some tough questions, one city councillor lashed out at The Citizen, accusing the newspaper of being “at war with city staff.” Jillian Merrick offered no logical basis for her charge and ignored the pay raises and the overtime issues brought to light.

Meanwhile, Soltis was playing games, offering by email to answer questions and then withdrawing her offer when she didn’t like the line of questioning, even though Coun. Brian Skakun had taken to Facebook to defend The Citizen’s reporting and express his unhappiness at the city’s unwillingness to respond to the issues raised.

When mayor and council took The Citizen up on an invitation to submit a guest editorial in August, their submission was simply a rehash of previous email responses from the city’s communications staff to The Citizen’s questions, confirming The Citizen’s reporting but brushing off both the pay hikes and the overtime payouts as simply following existing policy.

Meanwhile, mayor and council awarded Soltis with a new contract and another big pay raise in 2018.

She rewarded them for their confidence with another embarrassment they had to fix. After spending millions on a Masich Stadium renovation, city staff then issued a report saying public access to the facility should be significantly reduced. Like they had with the transit facility, mayor and council rightly buckled under public pressure and rejected what the Soltis bureaucracy had recommended.

The year ended for Soltis with a taxpayer-funded junket to China that yielded zero financial return for the city.

The 2019 Statements of Financial Information, released a month ago, revealed the latest pay hike for Soltis.

During all this time, Soltis and other senior city staff seemed unable to budget their six weeks of annual holidays and their additional two weeks of overtime holiday in lieu of having to pay them to attend evening meetings. As a result, she took home, on top of her annual wage, vacation payouts.

And then the project cost overruns started piling up, from the Haggith Creek bridge fiasco to the new fire hall to the new parkade.

The end came quickly for Soltis. The frustration of several city councillors with the city manager was on full display at a public meeting early this month.

So finally, at long last, city council parted ways with Soltis by “mutual agreement.” 

That, of course, is political speak for she, on the advice of her lawyer, signed off on her severance package. The details of that package can’t be revealed for privacy and confidentiality reasons but, based on her 34 years at the city and her 2019 wage of $265,000, the final tab will likely be at the very least $250,000. On the top end, she could be entitled to as much as $500,000.

That’s a lot of money to say goodbye but it might be money well spent if the multi-million dollar cost overruns come to an abrupt halt. It could also pay off if the departure of Soltis also leads to a housecleaning and streamlining of senior management as the first step to address the serious budget shortfalls the city is facing due to COVID-19.

Some hard lessons – besides the expense - have hopefully been learned by mayor and council from five-and-a-half years with Soltis. City council must be constantly vigilant of its single employee (all other city employees report, ultimately, to the city manager), no matter how much the mayor and council may personally like and professionally appreciate the city manager. Mayor and council must also hold that city manager accountable for mistakes and oversights. 

Finally, city council must retain significant authority to oversee and challenge operations and spending decisions. And if some of that authority is delegated to the city manager, it shouldn’t be a permanent blank cheque but a privilege that can be taken back at any time and for any reason.

What happens next is perhaps the most important decision this – and all city councils – ever have to make. Who will be chosen to replace Soltis and lead the city’s bureaucracy? What will be the marching orders given to that city manager, particularly as the City of Prince George heads into bargaining new contracts with its unionized employees?

Nothing is certain except for plenty of interesting days ahead at Prince George city hall.   

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