The reasoning behind the mutual decision between city manager Kathleen Soltis and city council which led her stepping down from her position on Friday remains a mystery.
Mayor Lyn Hall said he’s not able to shed light on what went on in the meetings this past week at city hall which marked the end of Soltis’s 34-year career as a city employee. Council also remained hush about the matter which ended with the departure of the elected body’s only paid employee.
“It was a very short time frame and I can only say so much, labour relations are conducted in a closed session,” said Mayor Lyn Hall. The mutual decision was made (Friday) and we got the news release out to everybody and out to our city employees.”
Hall admitted Soltis was placed on leave early in the week. He said the move was not directly connected with the COVID crisis which has plunged the city into a deficit situation, facing a $5-6 million gap in funding.
“It was not related to the stress of the pandemic,” said Hall. “The pandemic had caused a great deal of stress in the community, across the country, around the world, but no. We’ve had numerous meetings to discuss COVID and where we’re at and now staff will prepare for the second wave.”
The Citizen reached out to all seven council members for comment but none of those who responded to calls offered details on what led to Soltis leaving her position.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate that I respond,” said Coun. Frank Everitt.
“I can’t comment on it at all,” said Coun. Cori Ramsay. “I get that people are going to have questions but I just don’t want to get into any trouble and say the wrong thing.”
Coun. Susan Scott worked alongside Soltis in the 5 1/2 years she was city manager and while she did not always agree with her decisions she said Soltis fulfilled her duties well as a city employee.
“Kathleen’s contribution to the city will be thought long and hard and well of for a very long time,” said Scott. “It was a mutual decision and we all wish her well.”
Knowing the deficit situation the city faces, Scott said council will have to be prepared to make some tough decisions in the coming months.
“My position is nothing is off the table, it can’t be,” said Scott. “You have to consider everything. If I thought it would balance the budget, they could have my salary.”
Walter Babicz, the city’s general manager of administrative services, will assume the role as acting city manager, while Ian Wells, general manager of planning and development, will be the acting deputy city manager. Hall said there is no immediate plan to replace Soltis.
“Walter is acting city manager and Ian is acting deputy city manager and I would anticipate that this will continue through until early in the next year and council will make a decision on what direction we want to take when it comes to looking for somebody,” said Hall. “I think we want to let them get their feet under them and we’ll see what kind of plan we can out together for the new year.
“It’s a difficult job. You’re responsible for a huge budget, in excess of $140 million and we have a large staffing component, anywhere from 600 to 700 employees, depending on the season, and because of our geographics we’re a hub city and we provide a tremendous amount of services that have strain on our infrastructure. Anybody who takes it on comes with a great set of talent and skill to do the job.”
Soltis began her career with the city in 1986 as a personnel officer. She continued to advance into more high-profile positions and took over from Beth James as city manager in March 2015, after three months as acting city manager. Soltis was the director of corporate services for 17 1/2 years prior to James's departure and during that time stepped into the acting city manager role for seven months, from October 2012-April 2013. She played a key role in overseeing the 2017 referendum which led to city voters approving construction of a new downtown poll and fire hall.
The city manager oversees the overall management and operations of the city and its nearly 700 employees and acts as a key advisor for the mayor and council for development and implementation of policies and strategies.
“It was an honour and privilege to serve in the local government of my community and I’m particularly proud to have been part of a team with all of the city staff who go about their work each and every day,” said Soltis, in the city’s release. “Their work is often invisible but what they do contributes so much to making Prince George such a great place to live.”
Soltis was one of the highest-paid city employees with a base salary of $265,000. Hall said the city will not publicly release details on the severance package Soltis will receive. He acknowledged some taxpayers will want her position to remain unfilled permanently.
COVID closures have already prompted staff cuts and the elimination of two higher-profile management positions in July, including Glen Mikkelsen’s job as CN Centre general manager and Myles Tycholis’s post as event services manager at the Prince George Conference and Civic Centre.
“We’re going to hear a lot of personal opinions, and that’s the luxury of a democratic society.” Hall said. “When we go out looking for a new city manager, whatever that looks like, we’ll have to be competitive in the marketplace when it comes to salaries.”
The city is entering budget discussions with council members and will get full reports over the next few weeks to learn more details about the financial impact of the pandemic, which could ultimately result in further staff cuts or a reduction in services. Kris Dalio, the director of finance, will be soon be informing council about how much the reopening of the Aquatic Centre and the Kin Centre arenas is costing the city more to operate due to increased cleaning protocols and fewer users allowed in the building.
“We are going to go through a public consultation in October and we want to hear from residents about some of the services we provide and I know we’re going to get feedback on everything from potholes to road rehabilitation, infrastructure upgrades and snow removal,” said Hall.