No help for Helps? Victoria mayor reflects on plan to hire chief of staff

A frustrated Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said she might abandon plans to hire a chief of staff after the majority of councillors, led by Ben Isitt, balked at paying $120,000 a year for the new position.

Isitt won support for providing a base salary of $80,000 plus pension and benefits for a total of about $96,000 for the new position in the mayor’s office, to be called head of strategy and operations.

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“I don’t even know that it’s worth it to go and seek a senior person who’s going to work for $80,000,” Helps said.

The proposed position would last four years — to the end of Helps’s term.

Helps said she had no one in mind but is not looking to hire an assistant or someone she has to supervise.

She wants to hire someone “who has the capacity and the leadership ability to just do things.”

“I didn’t envision somebody who was going to get paid the same amount or less than many of our unionized supervisors to come and be the executive in the mayors’ office.,” Helps said. “It doesn’t make any sense. The salary makes no sense, so I’m just kind of happier to carry on with the status quo.”

Isitt and others argued $80,000 is a good salary, about 2.5 times more than what is considered the living wage for Victoria.

The salary is double the rate of pay for city councillors, Isitt said, adding there would be a disconnect if the assistant to the mayor were paid more than the mayor.

“I think we’ll find some fantastic applicants,” he said. “You look at people working in the legislative assembly, it’s an exciting opportunity.”

Coun. Laurel Collins said as a councillor she is logging about 56 hours a week and paid about $40,000 a year.

“I have a master’s [degree] and I’m five or six years into a PhD program. I think this kind of position has appeal and benefits beyond the salary. … We do need to be thinking that there is a huge differential between our lowest paid workers and our highest paid,” she said.

Collins, Sarah Potts and Sharmarke Dubow were elected to council under the aegis of Together Victoria, which they describe as “a grassroots organization” that is “dedicated to creating an affordable, inclusive and thriving city.”

Coun. Geoff Young said the whole idea of creating a new political position in the mayor’s office was “bizarre,” noting the proposed job description essentially mirrored the city manager’s job description.

“The idea that we’re setting up some kind of parallel political process within the bosom of the city to reflect — I don’t know — the agenda of the mayor as opposed to the agenda of the council? I don’t understand what is contemplated here,” Young said.

Councillors still had to ratify their decision Thursday night past press time.

Council last month approved Helps’s recommendation to create a new head of strategy position to work in the mayor’s office, but said the estimated $130,000 annual salary Helps proposed was too rich.

They referred the issue back to staff for analysis. Staff consulted with an external compensation consultant and reviewed similar positions in other municipalities and recommend paying between $120,000 and $125,000 in total salary and benefits.

Helps made headlines in 2015 after being elected to her first term when she announced she wouldn’t be hiring an executive assistant at a salary and benefit package of $98,774 a year.

The mayor’s executive assistant was a job created by Alan Lowe when he was mayor and continued by Dean Fortin when he was elected mayor.

Helps said in 2015 that she didn’t see the need for an executive assistant and that not hiring one would save the city $400,000 over the course of the term.

Helps, who received $104,000 in salary and filed expenses of $22,949 in 2017, recommended the new position pay $130,000 a year — which she called “an honest assessment of what it will take to get the kind of support that will help in my office.”

Helps recommended the position be filled by Jan. 7 on a four-year contract, terminating the day of the 2022 election, but council decided the position should be filled in January and reviewed as part of the 2021 budget process.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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