The person who had been tasked with overseeing the city’s finances will not reporting for duty any time soon.
Victor Mema, chief financial officer as well as deputy chief administrative officer, is on leave for an indefinite period of time, according to a statement provided to the News Bulletin.
“I can confirm that Victor is on leave, but can’t say for how long at this point in time,” said John Van Horne, the city’s manager of human resources, in an e-mail.
The reasons for Mema’s leave are unclear. On Friday, the city issued a press release starting that an independent investigation is being undertaken in regards to an allegation of a significant concern. The city’s release did not elaborate.
Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay told the News Bulletin that Laura Mercer, the city’s accounting services manager, will fill in as a result of Mema’s absence.
“Our chief financial officer’s position will be held by Laura Mercer, who is one of the two appointed deputies that was appointed and council ratified last June,” McKay said.
The other deputy officer appointed last June was Deborah Duncan, who was the city’s deputy director of financial services, but left the city last year.
McKay said the community charter requires Nanaimo to have a chief financial officer and a corporate officer but does not require the municipality to have a chief administrative officer. He said while Tracy Samra – who has been on leave since the end of January following an incident involving a woman allegedly uttering threats at city hall – still remains with the city, councillors will be relying on senior managers for information during her absence.
“Our CAO is Tracy Samra and she is on leave. We don’t want to forget that in any way,” McKay said. “However, council will be turning to their subject matter experts in each department within the city.”
With the city’s two highest-ranking employees away for an indefinite period of time, McKay said he would welcome any assistance from the provincial government and would not be opposed to them stepping in to help sort things out, adding that as mayor, he alone cannot ask the province for assistance, but council can through a majority vote.
The latest developments at city hall, however, have not swayed the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which, in an e-mailed statement, told the News Bulletin it has no plans to get involved in Nanaimo’s affairs.
“There is no formal role for the ministry but should mayor and council collectively decide to formally request assistance from the ministry then possible supports or guidance would be considered once that request is made,” said Kate Mukasa, communications manager for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Selina Robinson.
Coun. Gord Fuller said after the province’s decision not to get involved after seven councillors, including himself, sent a letter in 2016 to the province requesting their assistance over concerns about McKay’s leadership, he doesn’t expect the province to get involved.
“We were denied then, so why would I expect anything now?” he asked.
However, the letter Fuller is referencing was merely a letter of endorsement for Samra and did not specifically ask the province for help.
Coun. Bill Bestwick said while he wasn’t sure about provincial involvement, he said he would be in favour of hiring a reputable accounting or financial firm that could come in and run the city’s finance department and train current employees on best practices, until the chief financial officer situation is dealt with.
“We need help, so let’s get KPMG or somebody to come in and run it for us until we hire somebody,” he said.
Bestwick said the accounting company could also help the city identify errors with the city’s current policies and financial practices, adding that the current situation at city hall is an opportunity for council and the city to improve.
“With every tragedy comes opportunity,” he said. “So if this is a tragedy … how do we go about taking this loss and turning it into a victory?”
McKay, who in 2016 called on Peter Fassbender, then the province’s minister of community, sport and cultural development, to help assist Nanaimo council in hiring a permanent chief administrative officer, said he would like to see the province create a branch or government body that could provide municipal councillors and mayors with guidance about procedure and protocol based on the community charter.
“Right now, an individual councillor cannot even go to the province and ask them for assistance in interpreting clauses or sections of the community charter,” he said, adding that when councillors or mayors are concerned about procedures not being followed, they’re often told to get a legal opinion.
The government body could be staffed with lawyers or experts on the community charter and provincial legislation, whose sole job would be to provide guidance and understanding, suggested McKay.
“What I am looking for is a group of advisors or adjudicators,” he said. “If I am an employer and I am having trouble understanding a particular part of the labour code regarding vacation and I am having trouble getting an interpretation of that, I can phone the ministry of labour and I can speak to an advisor who will give me the ups and the downs of it and give me advice on it.”