Mayor tries to oust Saanich’s top bureaucrat

In a move that could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance, Saanich chief administrative officer Paul Murray is being pushed out the door by newly elected Mayor Richard Atwell, sources say.

Atwell, elected on a platform of change, met Murray before being sworn in as mayor to tell the administrator he was done and to begin negotiating a “resignation” package, the sources said. The Saanich mayor was accompanied at the meeting by lawyer Troy DeSouza, who does not work for the municipality.

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Atwell did not return calls for comment. Murray was said to be “on vacation” until Monday, when attempts were made to reach him at Saanich municipal hall. A call to his home was not returned.

Atwell, who under the Community Charter can’t dismiss an employee without approval of two-thirds of council, is said to have met resistance when he brought the matter to an in-camera council session this week.

Legal and financial details are being reviewed and council is expected to revisit the issue behind closed doors next week.

If Murray leaves, it won’t be cheap. According to Saanich’s latest Statement of Financial Information, Murray was paid $199,881 and was reimbursed for $9,193 in expenses in 2013. Murray’s contract calls for a minimum payout of 18 months’ salary or about $300,000 for early departure. Benefits could push the cost into the $400,000 to $500,000 range.

While no formal announcement has been made, rumours are flying around Saanich that Murray’s days as the chief bureaucrat are numbered. At a recent meeting of the Saanich Community Association Network, an announcement was made from the floor that Atwell had fired Murray.

John Schmuck, who chaired the meeting, said the comment wasn’t included in the minutes because it was unsubstantiated.

“I know there’s been discussions and I know council had in-camera meetings on Monday night, but no information is coming out that I’m aware of,” said Schmuck, who added he viewed the comment as inappropriate because no formal announcement regarding Murray’s status has been made.

“As a matter of transparency, they should be telling us what’s going on,” he said.

Atwell ran on a platform of change, as well as improving transparency and public consultation in Saanich council’s dealings.

“The word transparency permeated the whole election debate and so I’d like to find out myself [about Murray’s status],” Schmuck said.

Saanich councillors contacted by the Times Colonist refused to comment on the issue, saying they were bound by in-camera confidentiality.

“There’s not anything to share, unfortunately, because as you can probably appreciate, we’ve all been told to say nothing,” Coun. Dean Murdock said.

“I know that there’s some discussions going on, but it’s in-camera and that’s the difficult part,” said Coun. Leif Wergeland. While Atwell has said he has a mandate for change, other councillors have a mandate as well, Wergeland said.

“Something he has said numerous times is the people elected him to make real change,” Wergeland said.

“I look at that and say, the people elected him for a new face on council, a new face as mayor. The same people also elected six incumbents who have been on council for a number of years and they seem to be quite happy with where they are going. Much was said about openness and transparency and public consultation and just consultation [during the election], and it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. I’m looking forward to seeing it and being part of it.”

Murray began his career at Saanich in 2001 as director of corporate projects. He was appointed director of finance in 2004 and took over the municipality’s top job in 2012 when former administrator Tim Wood retired.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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