We disagree. Whether Ms. Samra chooses to install an in-house lawyer or a resident masseuse for stressed staff, it is always the public’s business because we are paying the bills. Moreover, council has total control over the purse strings not staff. Council sets priorities for the municipality by directing where taxpayers’ money will be spent. For 2018, council has not yet approved a final budget to finance the new lawyer position, but Ms. Samra has moved ahead regardless. That is both administratively imprudent and borderline insubordinate.
While there has been no formal discussion or debate on the merits of the city having an in-house city solicitor, through a Facebook comment by councillor Gord Fuller at the weekend we have been given a glimpse into Ms. Samra’s rationale for wanting an in-house lawyer rather than using only external law firms. The comment says “salary as opposed to hourly will be more cost effective and most communities our size have in-house staff lawyers.” That may be true — actually, it’s not based on our own fact-checking — but the point is council hasn’t seen the projected savings in a properly prepared business case. How much will taxpayers save? We don’t know because the decision is not backed up by a staff report. Addressing that process failure is also core to council’s governance role.
Ms. Samra’s decision to hire a staff lawyer looks less like a carefully considered plan and more like a hasty reaction. Just two months ago, she claimed to be done “realigning” staff ranks, which the Nanaimo News Bulletin dutifully announced in bold letters in its pages. What changed? Possibly a big bulge in legal costs last year owing to the debilitating procession of council censure, civil litigation, unfair dismissal claims, severance and legal costs for the event centre incurred before the voters had their say. But these are all temporary spikes that a new council will hopefully be able to avoid in future years. A permanent full-time solicitor hired now may end up with nothing to do, yet keep costing taxpayers $200,000 per year.
In the final analysis, Ms. Samra’s determination to press ahead to advertise the new city solicitor position without consultation or an approved budget is an exhibition of power, not financial prudence or administrative good judgement. It is a dare to council, especially finance and audit committee chairman Bill Bestwick, who wants to be mayor but has yet to show he can command a committee never mind a city.
Council members now face a stark choice: Shrug their shoulders and abdicate their fiscal responsibility and promise to the public, or rein in the CAO by putting a red line through an item in her budget, which could cut this year’s tax hike to 2.5% from 2.7%. At Wednesday’s finance and audit committee meeting, the public may well learn who is really in charge.