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Saanich and its chief administrative officer part ways; "decided to go in a new direction"

The District of Saanich has parted ways with chief administrative officer Paul Thorkelsson, who had been in the position since 2015.
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Paul Thorkelsson started work as Saanich's chief administrative officer on Jan. 4, 2015. SUBMITTED

The District of Saanich has parted ways with chief administrative officer Paul Thorkelsson, who had been in the position since 2015.

The CAO serves as the ­highest-ranking manager in Saanich — the largest municipality on Vancouver Island and eighth largest in B.C.

In a Twitter post from the hashtag #1angryviking, Thorkelsson said Saanich “decided to go in a new direction.”

“Thank you to #Saanich staff for your commitment and support over the past 5 1/2 years,” he said. “Keep doing great things.”

Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes said he couldn’t say much about Thorkelsson’s departure, as it’s a human-resources matter bound by privacy rules. “Council has decided to change the leadership and we wish Paul well,” he said. “Council decided that this change was in the best interest of the corporation.”

Brent Reems, Saanich’s director of building, bylaw, licensing and legal services, will serve as acting CAO effective Dec. 6, Haynes said. The recruitment process for an interim CAO who will remain on the job through the 2022 municipal election is expected to begin immediately.

Haynes said an interim CAO could be chosen as early as February. The next council will take on the task of selecting a permanent replacement for Thorkelsson.

“The most opportune market for hiring a new CAO is right after a municipal election, because there’s quite a changeover of CAOs after an election,” Haynes said. “So we think there will be a more robust field of candidates.”

Thorkelsson succeeded Paul Murray, who departed suddenly almost a year earlier, after Richard Atwell was elected mayor.

Atwell forced Murray out of the job, “and then council was left with the decision of how to deal with the consequences,” said then-councillor Dean Murdock, who is running for Saanich mayor in 2022.

Murray’s settlement cost Saanich taxpayers $476,000. Haynes said the settlement for Thorkelsson has not yet been determined. Thorkelsson’s salary when he was hired was in the $200,000 range, about the same as Murray’s.

Saanich council at the time was unanimous in approving Thorkelsson’s hiring.

Murdock said that when Murray left, the settlement included 18 months’ severance.

“I don’t know exactly what the situation would be in this case, but I expect the magnitude will be similar, if not greater, Murdock said. “In addition to how disruptive this can be to an organization like the District of Saanich, this is going to be a major expense for taxpayers.”

The Grumpy Taxpayer$ advocacy group said in a statement that municipal CAOs are “the critical linchpin between the political and the professional public services” and are a key to whether a municipality runs well.

If there is a parting of ways with a CAO, councils want to settle quickly “without a messy lawsuit” and thus offer generous severances, the group said.

Thorkelsson came to Saanich after serving as CAO of the Regional District of Nanaimo. Prior to that, the Edmonton native worked as an architect in his hometown and in Creston before making a move to municipal government.

jbell@timescolonist.com