City scrapped toxic culture program after exposé — then told no one

RFP issued for management coaching after article revealed that previous contract award was made in violation of trade laws
Nanaimo city officials quietly cancelled a widely publicized management training program after being embarrassed by a News Nanaimo exposé, it emerged yesterday.

Officials failed to tell the public for nine weeks that the controversial program was scrapped due to the fallout over the article, which said the contract had been awarded in violation of trade laws because it wasn’t put out for bids.

The article also revealed that one of the instructors the city was hiring ran a $500-per-night sexual empowerment retreat.

News Nanaimo article
The training program was terminated shortly after this News Nanaimo article was published

A news release on the city’s website still says the program is proceeding, but yesterday the city issued a request for proposals (RFP) inviting other companies to bid on the contract.

At a closed-door meeting on Oct. 2, city manager Tracy Samra got councillors to approve the “Constructive Culture through Self-Leadership” training sessions for about 50 managers.

They awarded the contract to Coach Associates International, a home-based business operated by Vancouver Island University (VIU) business professor Dr. Steven Purse.

Two days later, Ms. Samra issued the news release about the program but didn’t disclose how much the contract was worth. She said the program was meant to fix the city’s toxic culture, and she was “convinced that this is the path forward.”

However, on Saturday Oct. 7 of the Thanksgiving weekend News Nanaimo revealed that the city had violated the NewWest Partnership trade agreement because the contract was worth more than $75,000 but was not advertised for competitive bids.

The article also disclosed that Dr. Purse’s partner in the program, Brad Switnicki, offered an apartment on Nanaimo’s waterfront for rent as a “sexually empowering retreat adventure.”

VIU president gets involved

The news caused embarrassment for not only city council, but was also a source of concern for senior executives at VIU.

Records obtained through a freedom of information request show that VIU’s president Dr. Ralph Nilson emailed senior managers about the issue when he returned to work on the Tuesday morning following the long weekend.

The subject of his message was marked “Confidential:Any questions re: VIU faculty and individual contract.”

Redacted email Ralph Nilson
A copy of the heavily redacted email from VIU president Ralph Nilson to senior managers about the News Nanaimo article

Shelley Legin, the university’s chief financial officer and vice-president of administration, then asked her communications manager Janina Stajic to “please prepare for this and monitor social media.”

The records show that there were more than a dozen other emails that day, most raising concerns about information highlighted on Facebook showing a link from VIU’s website to Dr. Purse’s company website. That link was removed.

Meanwhile, at the city, councillors were irate when they were informed that Dr. Purse’s company and the city would not be proceeding with their agreement.

It’s not known who initiated the decision to cancel the contract.

Records show that when News Nanaimo later asked VIU if they had or would be taking action to distance the university from the contract, Ms. Stajic emailed her boss to say, “PS if we aren’t able to respond that is okay.”

The university never did answer any questions about the contract or its policies for freelance work by faculty.

No records kept

According to VIU’s policy on outside employment activities, the president is required to keep a “record of all regular employee’s (sic) ongoing business interests and outside contracts of employment.”

However, in response to a freedom of information request for the records, VIU last week admitted there were none.

“We confirm that the VIU does not currently maintain a universal register of all employees’ outside business interests. As we assume that this request is in relation to your recent published article concerning a consulting arrangement between a member of the Faculty of Management at VIU and the City of Nanaimo, we have also confirmed that this Faculty does not maintain such a master list,” said the response.

Samra: “Change will continue”

In its new RFP yesterday, the city said it was seeking proposals from “qualified firms experienced in coaching, training and/or education to facilitate leadership and corporate culture change for City of Nanaimo management.”

The year-long contract will deliver coaching services to about 60 members of the city’s management reporting directly or indirectly to Ms. Samra.

Bid document
The city yesterday issued a request for proposal for management coaching services

In an email to all staff this week, Ms. Samra said: “I recognize the City of Nanaimo is going through some challenging times. We have been in a period of change management for two years. And, change will continue into the future.”

She said she had met with about 50 management staff to “talk about a leadership and change management program.”

The plan was for the management group “to lead us through corporate culture change and to come up with ideas to roll it out across our organization,” wrote Ms. Samra.


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  • good work sleuthing the many fine points that the city and viu want to keep buried… the city needs a shake up and this would require a clean slate removing many of the people in positions of power at present…