NNanaimo city manager Tracy Samra has publically snubbed majority leader Bill Bestwick over the hiring of a new in-house lawyer, News Nanaimo can reveal today.
In a rare display of defiance, the city manager has advertised a new city solicitor job in spite of Mr. Bestwick calling on her to wait until the new post is discussed with the public and a final budget approved.
The bureaucrat’s brush off of Mr. Bestwick, who controls council with a five-man majority and heads the important finance and audit committee, will likely heighten tensions between the two that have been simmering for weeks.
There is a growing sense with sources close to the council majority that Ms. Samra has become a liability to their re-election chances.
Last month, Mr. Bestwick and his council allies were blindsided when CUPE Local 401, the city’s biggest union, staged a broad-based pre-Christmas protest over their inaction against the “fear and vitriol” under Ms. Samra’s management.
The union action has led to growing rumours of a looming showdown between council and Ms. Samra. Mr. Bestwick needs to retain important union support as he heads into the October election, when the four-term councillor is finally expected to try a run at mayor.
Council not consulted for approval
Ms. Samra’s decision to create a new city solicitor position, which is expected to cost taxpayers about $200,000 per year, was taken without obtaining council approval or presenting a business case.
In October, the city manager told council she was done making management changes and after several shuffles the realignment was complete.
The significant new city solicitor role only became public after community input on the budget had closed. It appeared for the first time as three words on a late agenda two days before council provisionally approved the 2018 budget at its final meeting of the year on December 18.
After hearing concerns from resident Don Bonner about the in-house lawyer role and two other items, Mr. Bestwick said there would be a chance before the final budget in March to make “amendments or adjustments.”
He said he expected that staff would “not action” the new items until they’re “responsibly discussed with the public” before the final budget is approved.
However, on Friday Ms. Samra ignored Mr. Bestwick’s comments and posted a job listing for the new full-time city solicitor with a three-week application deadline ending Jan. 26.
The position will report directly to Ms. Samra, who is a trained lawyer herself, and will provide legal support on “ the full range of subjects” dealt with by council and the administration.
The job description says the city will still rely on outside law firms.
Role in richer cities
In-house lawyers are typically hired by richer cities like Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and Victoria on claims it’s cheaper than using only outside law firms.
But public records show that cities with in-house lawyers continue to spend huge sums on legal services.
In 2016, Victoria taxpayers spent more than $238,000 on city solicitor Tom Zworski’s salary and benefits, and a further $1.2 million on the services of seven law firms.
In Burnaby, city solicitor May Leung cost taxpayers $175,470 in pay, while the city still spent $1.1million with eight law firms in 2016.
By comparison, Nanaimo taxpayers did not spend anything on a city solicitor in 2016 and $525,354 on six law firms, which is less than half that of the two cities with in-house lawyers.
Berry “would not recommend”
In-house lawyers can change the tone and direction of cities’ decision making, warned municipal government consultant Jerry Berry, who was Nanaimo’s city manager for more than 20 years until 2009.
“I would not recommend cities hire in-house solicitors,” said Mr. Berry. “It often results in organizations using lawyers at each and every meeting because they’re there.
“This is problematic because if lawyers were the only determinant, we would never have a single park, facility or playground on liability concerns. Councils have to consider many other factors, such as social, cultural, political, financial, ethical and community values,” he said.
Ms. Samra did not respond to an email Friday asking what her rationale was for seeking an in-house city solicitor. Mr. Bestwick also did not respond to an email seeking comment.