Pay for city's senior managers a hot topic at forum

Twelve of the 15 candidates hoping to be elected to city council on Oct. 20 faced off for the first time in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Prince George Public Library on Tuesday night.

Missing from the all-candidates forum, which was co-hosted by CBC and the Prince George Public Library, were council hopefuls Kyle Sampson and Dave Fuller, along with mayoral candidate Willy Enns.

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Candidates fielded questions voted on by CBC listeners and posed by members of the audience on issues ranging from backyard chickens to the city's wage policy for senior managers and how to address poverty and homelessness in the city.

On the issue of compensation and overtime for senior city managers, incumbent Mayor Lyn Hall said the new council will have a chance to review the city's policies, but the review needs to take into account what similar positions in other communities pay.

"We have to be very vigilant about how we do this," Hall said. "The market is really dictating what we have to pay for senior managers."

Six-term incumbent city councillor Murry Krause said while residents may feel upset about the raises paid to senior city managers, and the overtime paid during the 2017 wildfire crisis, those managers were following a policy which had been set in place by city council seven years prior.

"Senior management did nothing wrong, they complied with the policy," Krause said. "(At the Union of B.C. Municipalities) we're constantly hearing from communities about their difficulty in attracting senior managers. It's not an easy task, and (city manager) Kathleen Soltis has done a champion's job."

Not only did city staff respond to an influx of thousands of people evacuated from neighbouring communities, he said, they managed the completion of several other major city projects.

Former two-term city councillor Cameron Stolz, who is seeking to return to council after not being reelected in 2014, said while senior managers receive annual wage increases on par with city unionized staff, there are pay brackets which increase compensation based on experience and seniority. All of those need to be fully reviewed, Stolz said.

In addition, Stolz questioned why city managers were being paid out for overtime rather than using those hours for additional vacation time later in the year -a common practice in the private sector, including his own business.

Political newcomer Christopher Wood said while senior managers are entitled to reasonable cost of living wage increases, the city's overtime policy is in need of review.

"If our city manager leaves, there are other people who want to come and live in Prince George," Wood said. "If she is going to leave because she didn't get a pay raise, was she really loyal to Prince George?"

Incumbent councillor Frank Everitt said the city's labour policies for senior managers was approved in 2011, and was based on recommendations by the provincial government to bring the city's policy in line with the province.

While private companies can manage overtime for salaried employees differently, under the city's policy, "If people are entitled to overtime, they can choose to take it as time or as pay, that's how our policy works."

Incumbent councillor Teri McConnachie said the city's current policies, "reflect the time and space they were made," and she would look forward to participating in a review.

"This has nothing to do with the quality of work or the attributes of our senior managers," McConnachie added.

Long-serving incumbent city councillor Brian Skakun said city council has already taken steps to reduce overtime in future emergencies by hiring an emergency coordinator.

"That person was doing (that work) this summer, and taking the pressure off our senior managers," Skakun said.

However, he said, city council needs to take a more active role in managing the city's senior staff and called for quarterly reporting on things like overtime pay for salaried staff.

"We need to base some of the pay on performance," he added.

A question proposed by the Prince George Public Library asked what the prospective councillors would do to develop more bathrooms in the downtown, and later questions asked councillors to weigh in on issues such as the development of public housing.

On the issue of public bathrooms downtown, political newcomer Viv Fox said the city should look for creative options to allow people downtown the basic human dignity of access to a washroom.

"We're not going to know if we don't try," Fox said. "It might be worth looking at de-comissioned Atco trailers, so people experiencing homelessness can have the basic right to a bathroom facility."

Fellow newcomer Cori Ramsay said the lack of bathrooms downtown affects people from all walks of life and, "It's something that we need to focus on regardless of the cost."

Fox also came out in support of building a long-awaited performing arts centre in the city.

"I think it would be a great asset to Prince George."

However, incumbent councillor Susan Scott was more cautious on the issue.

"In terms of the performing arts centre, I'm a little reluctant," Scott said. "I need more information. I need to know, and taxpayers need to know, how it would affect me. I can go to the symphony now. The performing arts centre is still not quite in my reach."

On the issue of the city's aging infrastructure, newcomer Paul Serup said the city has five million reasons to reconsider the redevelopment of the Four Seasons Pool downtown, which he viewed as waste of money.

"Whenever faced with these possibly very large expenses, we need to be very prudent with the taxpayers dollars," Serup said.

And, as for those backyard chickens? Incumbent councilor Garth Frizzell said he would like to give them a limited-time pilot project to see if chickens in residential backyards could work in the city.

"If it doesn't work for Prince George, than it doesn't work for Prince George," Frizzell said. "But I think it's worth trying."

CBC Daybreak associate producer Audrey McKinnon moderated the debate, which was streamed live via Facebook.

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