Victoria city manager Gail Stephens is resigning from the city’s top job to become the chief operating officer of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
Stephens’ resignation, effective Aug. 2, comes nearly a year after her contract was extended three years to 2017 by Victoria councillors.
In her letter of resignation, Stephens, city manager since 2009, said she leaves with feelings of anticipation and regret.
Mayor Dean Fortin called Stephens’ departure “bittersweet,” while Coun. Shellie Gudgeon said it was a “huge blow to the city.”
“Gail will be extremely missed but we totally understand that she has been offered an amazing opportunity,” Fortin said. “Victoria’s loss is Winnipeg’s, and frankly, the country’s gain.”
John Burrows, president of CUPE Local 50 representing city workers, said he was surprised by Stephens’ resignation and speculated her departure might be related to the $92.8-million Johnson Street Bridge replacement project.
A group of citizens called for an independent inquiry in March after a freedom of information request produced a memo suggesting Stephens may have misled councillors in October 2011 about the bridge project being on budget.
“I’m surprised council, for one, would have extended her contract [a year ago] without any kind of review of the extension. It just happened,” Burrows said. “Now for her to tender her resignation, I can only assume it had something to do with the financial reporting about the bridge.”
At the October 2011 meeting, a month before the municipal election, Stephens told councillors the bridge replacement was still within its budget, then $77 million.
However, in August, the city’s acting assistant director of finance, Troy Restell, wrote the bridge project team a memo indicating bridge costs had risen an estimated $5.2 million to $82.2 million.
At the time, Stephens said she had questions about the validity of the numbers and wanted more information before taking anything to council.
The city released a statement saying Stephens had the full confidence of council, but sources say Stephens only managed to survive a confidence vote by five to four.
In her letter of resignation, Stephens said she was proud of many accomplishments during her four years with the city, including:
• Progress on the Johnson Street Bridge project. “We have managed to meet tight timelines despite very scarce resources.”
• Completion of the Official Community Plan, downtown core area plan and citizen engagement, economic development and customer service strategies.
• Better accountability reporting and significant progress on asset management and infrastructure assessments.
• Introduction of in-house legal services.
Prior to becoming Victoria city manager in 2009, Stephens was vice-president of finance and services for the University of Calgary and CEO of the B.C. Pension Corporation. She was Winnipeg city manager from 1998 to 2003.
Stephens’ three-year contract extension last July came in the midst of a public outcry over high rates of compensation for senior city staff.
While Fortin said at the time that no changes had been made to her contract, councillors Ben Isitt and Gudgeon voted against the extension, arguing they were being rushed andhadn’t had the opportunity to see the document they were being asked to extend.
Isitt said Friday he was surprised by Stephens’ resignation.
“I think Ms. Stephens worked hard for the city, but this is an opportunity for the city to renew its leadership and to move forward in advancing our social and environmental priorities,” he said.
Stephens received $240,346 in compensation and $12,038 in expenses in 2012, making her the highest paid local government official in the capital region.