A request for more information turns into a debate about just how much information council is entitled to

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Things got a little heated at a recent Huntsville Council meeting when staff brought forward a recommendation to increase the pay rate for some non-unionized positions at Town Hall.

Huntsville CAO Denise Corry and Town Manager of Human Resources Lisa Smith were before council with the recommendation which, if approved, would add about $911,000 to the municipality’s expenditures for non-unionized positions. Those funds could be initially phased-in over three years, according to the recommendation before council, but would not include the customary annual Cost of Living Allowance (COLA).

In 2018 and with council approval, human resources consultants Pence & Associates were hired to develop a non-union compensation program for municipal staff and include market reviews for union employees as well as volunteer fire fighters in its study.

According to information from the consultant, it surveyed 11 comparator municipalities including all three towns in Muskoka as well as the City of Orillia, the towns of Wasaga Beach, Collingwood, Innisfil and East Gwillimbury, Essa, Oro-Medonte, and Springwater townships, and the County of Essex. It also sent out a survey to three hospital organizations and one responded (Grey Bruce Health Services).

In a presentation to council in November, the consultant concluded that for the majority of positions, the Town of Huntsville’s job rate falls below the 50th percentile of the market. It also notes that one position is above the 50th percentile, while another position is above the 75th percentile of the market.

Councillor Tim Withey who is new to this term of council said he was not privy to the consultant’s presentation in November and asked if he could see the market survey used by the consultant.

Smith said the market survey wasn’t provided, just the presentation.

“How was there no market survey provided?” asked Withey.

Corry told Withey that council provided approval for the study and “the intricate details of how that study rolls out is not something that would be before council. What comes before council is the cost of the outcome of that study. So Lisa (Smith) and I have worked very closely with the consultant in order to make sure that positions seem reasonable where they fall within the bands, the information was provided to us with respect to our comparators, which was presented in the presentation… so that information was provided but the actual hard data is something that would not normally be before council,” said Corry. “Because council’s role would not be to evaluate or determine if that data was correct, that’s what the consultant was hired for and that’s why we staff didn’t do it internally ourselves, either.”

Withey insisted that in order to make a decision additional information should be provided. “I don’t know why that would be kept away from us, I think that that’s an integral part of making a decision on any of these things that affect budgets, taxpayers, et cetera.… I would like to see that please.”

Corry pushed back and said, “My response to that would be that you have myself as CAO in place to ensure that the general management and the administration and conduct and business affairs of the Town is carried out,” adding that approval was given to hire a consultant. She said while she would follow the direction given around the council table, she does question what the “value would be of council diving into that level of evaluation when we hire a consultant to do all of that for us,” adding that neither she nor the HR manager “would have all the raw data either. So I’m just a little bit confused why that would be of value around the table.”

Corry said if you break down some of the data it could identify the exact amount an employee is being paid, “so that is confidential information, we can’t give that. What we could give to you are the pay bands.” Corry also noted that none of the information has been released to staff, “so there would be a bit of an issue with us releasing that information publicly within our organization. It would come obviously to council for discussion and then at the end of the day, should council choose not to do anything, or come in at a lower percentile, whatever the case may be, certainly makes it difficult for staff to have seen what might have been and what was decided.”

A frustrated Withey noted that the sunshine list certainly reveals some of that information. “If you want to redact something and give pay bands that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask for the background information. I’m concerned that there seems to be this level of secrecy, when all I am asking for is the information to do my job.”

Corry responded: “Councillor Withey, with all due respect, I can’t give you any information that I don’t disclose to the rest of council, and that can only be done by a virtue of a council meeting. So I guess if there is direction from this group for us to provide all of that information in a public session, we would take that recommendation and confirm that we’re not in contravention of any privacy with respect to the third-party information that was collected and whether there’s any issue with us releasing that publicly by virtue of identifiable individuals.”

Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison asked whether some of that data could be shared in closed session.

“If it’s about identifiable individuals and the clerk feels that that warrants closed session discussion, then yes,” said Corry.

Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano said that while she did not know the level of information Councillor Withey was asking for, “what’s before us is approving basically a million dollar expenditure so council is privy through the inner circle to the Town’s current pay band system and where positions within the Town fall… so why is the new pay band and where positions fall not part of what we can see?”

Corry replied that the new proposed pay bands had not yet been approved. “So until such time as we’re able to fund the new bands that have been established by the consultant, it doesn’t exist,” she said, adding that it is not up to council to determine whether an employee is in the right pay band or how much of an increase a certain employee should get, that is her role as administrator, therefore it should not impact their decision.

“This conversation is getting uncomfortable,” said Councillor Brian Thompson. “I totally agree with what you’re saying. I think this is just an area where we as councillors just have no business going. That’s your job and that’s Lisa’s job, that’s what we pay you for.”

Councillor Dan Armour said he’s not personally interested in who falls within what band and who is getting what wage. “What would be important for me, anyhow, is to see which bands are deficient compared to other bands – maybe one is 30 per cent less and one is 25 per cent, and which bands might be moving. That might be more beneficial.”

Councillor Nancy Alcock said she would have no problem with certain parts of the report being redacted. “I don’t need to see names,” she said. Alcock was critical of the consultant’s presentation, calling it deficient and somewhat dismissive of questions posed at the time. She said a bit more information would be appreciated.

Although the information was not in any report, Corry said that based on the consultant’s eleven comparators, “we are currently paying our staff at the 25th percentile, based on those eleven.” Corry further added that at the 60th percentile mark, which was being recommended by staff, about 15 staff members would be red circled “and the majority would receive increases, some minor, some quite substantial based on market.”

Corry said staff appreciate that it is a difficult year with many requests from both staff and the community putting pressure on the 2019 budget, “but at the end of the day, these are what these positions are valued at based on market. You saw our comparators in the presentation. The municipality just south to us is paying substantially more for positions and the question I think we need to ask ourselves is do we want to be that employer that people want to come [to], do we want to be an employer of choice and that’s all part of the conversation about compensation.”

Corry also questioned whether council wanted to take the chance of seeing staff leaving the municipality for higher paying employment elsewhere. “Do we want people to leave before we implement a fair market?”

Councillors Jonathan Wiebe and Alcock asked for further examples of the municipality’s employment experience and how hard it has or has not been to fill positions.

Terziano said there seems to be some confusion between what people are asking and what they’re perceived to be asking. “I think what they’re asking is we have a request for a million dollars here and we’re asking for some more supportive information and it’s entirely up to you to bring us what you feel you can bring us, but we’re clearly saying there’s not enough here to make a decision today.”

In the end, council postponed the motion before it, pending more information to be brought back when it meets again in January.

You can find the consultant’s PowerPoint presentation at this link.

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21 Comments

  1. and the problem is? Tim is representing my money and I would like to know where it is being spent, not on whom but rather where. It is a simple process to redact the names. Release the study, if indeed it exists, which would be a different set of questions.

  2. It is a never ending Merry – go -round this comparator argument . As a union worker for 30 years I completely understand the need to have a fair wage and was the recipient of many good decisions based on comparators . The losers are the taxpayers who are at the mercy of other municipalities wage increase decisions and the Town is constantly chasing the ring which is the top level wage some are paid in other jurisdictions , a prime example being the District wage offerings….One taxpayer involved but a continuous battle for talent between 2 entities spending our tax dollars…..Not sure what the solution is but housing also becomes unaffordable when tax rates mean you have to sell your home ….Perhaps a get together with all elected Muskoka officials to discuss this issue. Collusion , probably , but the merry – go – round needs to slow down !

  3. S. Derek Shelly on

    One also needs to consider whether or not “we get what we pay for”. sometimes we get better work from those paid a lessor amount. I don’t think anyone will deny taking more but just because we pay more doesn’t always mean we get better work.

  4. Murray Christenson on

    To me, it seems odd that an administrative official is making a decision on what is and isn’t of value to an elected councilor. We paid for the research, if the councilor wants to do a deep dive into the results let him have at it. Anyone who has worked in research and with data…as I have…knows full well numbers can be shaped to tell any story one desires. With a million dollars at stake, I’m all for councilor Whithey having a look.

    • I agree with Withey…..I’m sure the CAO and its staff of any company knows the role description and the salaries of all staff, especially a public company. As a former principal, I knew the job description and the salary of every teacher, caretaker and maintenance worker. Council members are responsible for all public funds.

  5. Thank you Tim and Karin for questioning this. No one should spend a million dollars of taxpayer money without all of the facts. I

  6. It’s a very reasonable request to see the the survey data. Another $900K is a lot of money for Huntsville taxpayers. We elect council to look after our tax $, which are too often taken to be endless. Full transparency is important to make the right decisions.

  7. Thanks to Tim Withey and Karin Terziano for expecting additional information and understanding before agreeing to a cost escalation in excess of $900,000.
    Almost a million dollar cost increases to the Town of Huntsville should be discussed in detail, debated and rationalised extensively by Council. Not sure why staff seemed to have an expectation that these increases would just simply be approved and added to the ever-increasing burden of ratepayers?
    Thanks Tim and Karin – you are acting as model taxpayer advocates. This is what ratepayers expect of their elected representatives.

  8. Tim, we are with you…It is refreshing to have someone concerned about potential never ending tax increases……..It appears that the CAO is getting a little carried away with the position and power!
    Re the study, wonder why municipalities north of here were not included?I’m certain it would affect the results. Do we want to compete with positions and rate of pay in Essa, East Gwill, Orillia and hospital organizations.Why???
    Also, why are we paying for consultants. Do we not have anyone on our HR staff that could acquire non Union compensation rates based on local municipalities?

  9. In a nutshell, this is the problem with hiring consultants. They charge 250% of what it would cost to do the work in house; they eventually pull the rabbit out of the hat (with mystifying power-point presentations); and take umbrage at questions (as if you are doubting their expertise). If we must use a consultant, then Ms. Smith should have continually been kept abreast of their progress; with complete access to all numbers and statistical analyses.
    .
    Both sides were correct in this unfortunately somewhat heated discussion. Mr. Withey and Ms. Terziano were correct in questioning results emanating from a magic “black box”, and Ms. Corry was correct in defending her staff member.
    .
    What wasn’t correct was the lack of expertise, or interest in staying on top of the consultant.

  10. Kathryn Henderson on

    We are paying all kinds of town employees surely one of them could have done the job of checking the pay rates of other towns instead of paying out good money for a consultant. Almost one million dollars? It’s a funny thing that for the last 10 years or so the average worker has not seen a raise nor do most of the average taxpayers have health benefits or any kind of pension plan and they don’t make enough money to save for retirement. The thing that bugs me is that a lot of these hardworking taxpayers could do the same work as the work being done by town employees. So why are they paid better, have benefits and paid sick days and a pension plan oh yeah and a raise? What makes working for the town or post office or any other government job so special that it’s worth more and includes all the benefits mentioned above when a lot of taxpayers could do the same job but instead make crap wages with no sick days no benefits and no pension plan? I realize there are some jobs that the average joe cant do without the proper schooling but for the rest….. It is getting so I can’t afford to live in this town and I know a lot of people saying the same thing. Huntsville is turning into a rich man’s town. And I agree with Withey that the assessment from the hired consultant should be shared with Council. We elected the council to represent us and to look after all the towns people.

  11. When one works for the general public as do municipal employees, there are benefits as pointed out already in the comments, but one other benefit is that in the public sector generally a job is very secure. One does not get laid off due to lack of sales. The job and benefits generally are the most secure one can find anywhere. This is a great benefit in itself these days.
    In return for this benefit, and remembering that all government jobs are essentially “public servants” who, in theory at least, “work for the taxpayers”, then one of the conditions of these public sector jobs should be that the public that ultimately pays you should be able to know what you are paid. Not some bunch of mumbo jumbo about “the pay grid” but simply, how many $$ did we pay that person last year and include the benefits!

    If people are too sensitive to allow this data to be made public, then they can always opt to work in the private sector. In this setting the only entities who know what you get paid are yourself, your boss and Canada Revenue but you may or may not have the security that comes with a government job.
    Continuing on the security issue, I’d expect that this very security would be reflected in a lower hourly wage than the not so secure private sector. Is this the case generally? One wonders.

    Another issue is that of comparison with other municipal settings. Where is it written that the same job description in one town should get the same pay as in another? similar job descriptions may not mean that the actual work involved is anywhere near the same from one town to another. Different geographic areas have different attributes. A lot of people call this area “God’s Country” and spend much money to come here. We have (hopefully) a cleaner and quieter environment than that found in the bigger cities but we also lack many “big city services” too. It is a balance and I don’t see any good reason to increase pay just because someone elsewhere did.
    If the employees want that extra pay they can move to the area that offers it. When the day comes that we can’t find any employees willing to work for our town, then we need to look at raising our pay, however we may find that a lot of good employees, although they won’t turn down a raise, will work happily for less pay than in some other locations simply because they like it here better for many other reasons.

    Take a look in any municipal office in the area some day. They lack for little. The equipment is modern, the technology far superior to what most private industry can afford. Their buildings are obviously newer and better than most others in the area. They are the first to get things like fiber optic hook ups. The hours are not onerous. They get their weekends and holidays off with little disruption… the list goes on.

    In many municipalities the municipality is the largest employer. Is it too much to expect that at the very minimum the councilors who are in charge of this large enterprise can access all the data they might wish to see?

    • Thanks, Brian, for a little bit of perspective. Clearly Tim Withey was well within his mandate to ask the questions he did, and expect a reasonable reply from town staff, not obfuscation. While they are salaried staff, they are still answerable to council. Awkward though it may be, the Mayor and council are the boss, period. And, his questions were not unreasonable.
      We all know that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Councillor Withey has a great deal of experience in dealing with figures, and his questions were quite legitimate.

  12. It is time that the employees realize that the elected officials are their bosses and should know who is paid what and thank you to Tim and Karin for letting the CAO and all the staff know that they and the ratepayers want answers.

    • Agreed, Ian. One of the problems with having the practical day-to-day control of governments (at all levels) in the hands of bureaucrats, is that of the question of “ownership”. Government is NOT a privately-held business–where the owners get to decide policies, expenditures, and methods. It is a non-profit institution, responsible to the elected officials who are, in turn, responsible to the people–the real owners of the enterprise. Through their votes, the people are then able to replace those elected officials, if they are dissatisfied with an elected official’s performance. At least that’s the way democracies are supposed to work. As such, the actions of the bureaucratic structure should be completely transparent in its goals and methods–just like any other non-profit institution is required to be. It is shocking that bureaucrats can often be callous toward elected officials right to know. This is simply unacceptable in a free society. One of the many reasons why socialist and communist systems collapse, with a mighty thud, is the enormous unaccountable bureaucracies that they spawn. And the more centralized the authority, the more unaccountable (which should make the citizens of Muskoka very wary of investing more and more authority in a centralized “regional government”).

  13. S. Derek Shelly on

    As burdensome as they can be sometimes a “narrative” budget as opposed to a “line” budget is much more practical in that we (the taxpayers) get to see what work is being done and how much of the worker’s time is supposedly spend doing all they are expected to do.

  14. Quoted from the article.
    “the consultant concluded that for the majority of positions, the Town of Huntsville’s job rate falls below the 50th percentile of the market”

    So what is the goal here? To be above the 50%?
    If salaries are raised to be above 50% then another Township falls below the 50% and their “consultant study” will recommend that their salaries be increased.
    It becomes an endless cycle as Townships keep upping salaries.

    If salaries are SIGNIFICANTLY below the 50% then there could be made an argument to raise them to be closer to the 50% but the fact remains that even at where the salaries are now there are still people willing to perform those jobs without leaving the Township for jobs in other Townships.

    Thank you Tim for asking this question. As many of us have learnt over the past year Consultants reports can be written to give any desired result based on who has asked for the report.

    I personally don’t trust summaries and results provided by Consultants. I would rather look at the data that they accumulate and make my own conclusions.

  15. Anthony N. Doob on

    A copy of this letter would sent to Doppler for publication ~

    23 December 2018
    To: The Mayor and Members of the Town of Huntsville Council
    From: Anthony N. Doob

    I am writing to you in relation to an 18 December 2018 report in the Huntsville Doppler concerning Council’s reluctance to examine the actual data gathered, at the taxpayers’ expense, on compensation for non-unionized positions with the Town.
    I should point out that I am a Huntsville taxpayer. And I favour fair wages for the Town’s employees. If the amounts mentioned are appropriate, I’m happy to have my tax money go to paying these increased wages. I am not questioning the conclusions drawn by Lisa Smith and Denise Corry in their apparent recommendation to increase the wages for these Huntsville employers only because I don’t have the information on which to evaluate their conclusions. I do, however, expect that the Town of Huntsville Council should be held responsible for their salary offers to the non-unionized employees. And, in that context, I agree with the position apparently taken by Councillor Tim Withey who asked to see the actual survey and the data.
    In my normal work, I deal with data all the time. To evaluate data, one has to see how the data were collected and what the actual results were. I have examined carefully the PowerPoint presentation and especially what are described in it as the “Market Survey Methodology” and the three slides described as “Salary Grid Recommendations.”
    Simply stated, I do not believe that any Town councillor should be making recommendations based on the data presented in this presentation. Among other things, you need to see, I believe, the details of the responses. One has no idea, from this presentation, how closely the benchmark job descriptions were seen as matches to jobs with other employers. You also do not know how much variability there was within the other municipalities. And you do not know what the range of changes would be for different jobs.
    As I said at the outset, I believe that we should pay fair wages. But I also believe that Town of Huntsville Councillors should be responsible for their decisions. A million dollars a year (forever) is being considered. In this context, I find the statement attributed in the article to Councillor Brian Thompson to be remarkable and unacceptable: “This conversation is getting uncomfortable… I think that this is just an area where we as councilors just have no business going…” I’m sorry: we expect our Councillors to take responsibility for important decisions. It is too bad that suggestions to make him responsible for doing his job make Councillor Thompson feel uncomfortable. These are not individual hiring decisions; this is a policy question being put before the Council. Councillor Thompson and all councillors should vote on the basis of having examined carefully all the information that we, as tax payers, paid for. If (and only if) it would involve public disclosure of personal matters, the meeting could be held in camera. It is not encouraging that Councillor Thomspon would prefer not to have responsibility for a continuing expenditure of a million dollars a year.
    I would urge Council to take responsibility for its actions. It should ask for, and examine carefully, the data it paid for. And then it can make a decision that, one hopes, it can defend to those who pay the bills – Huntsville taxpayers.
    Sincerely,

    Anthony N. Doob

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