Political dysfunction in Whitchurch-Stouffville, a small but fast-growing town on the outskirts of Toronto, has reached the radar of Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs, and now the community is dealing with yet another high-level staff departure.
Rob McKenzie, the town’s fire chief since 2010, quietly told town council last week that he will retire at the end of the month. He confirmed the news in a brief call with CBC News but declined to answer any questions, including whether his retirement was an early one and if it was prompted by turmoil at town hall.
Town spokesperson Glenn Jackson was equally tight-lipped, writing in an email that the town would not comment on McKenzie. No news release was issued to alert residents that their fire chief is leaving.
McKenzie’s departure comes at a time when the town’s leadership is already struggling to function smoothly.
The council, made up of Mayor Justin Altmann and six other councillors, is not getting along; a mysterious photo collage in Altmann’s office bathroom, featuring political players and residents, is under investigation by the integrity commissioner; and numerous high-level staff have gone on leave, resigned, retired or been terminated in the past three years.
All of this has not gone unnoticed by the province.
“I am aware of the challenges town council and staff have been facing,” Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro said in a statement to CBC News. He said the province is ready to help the municipality work through its problems, but he’d prefer they do it on their own.
“I believe that the best solutions are arrived at locally between the parties involved,” Mauro said. “I encourage council and staff to continue to work together in order to serve the public in an effective and efficient manner.”
Councillor Hugo Kroon welcomed the minister’s encouragement and said if the ministry wanted to get more involved, he would not stand in its way.
“There is a very toxic environment in the municipality,” he said, adding that “personality conflicts” are getting in the way of getting things done.
Staff from the ministry have already gone to Stouffville twice. Their first trip was at the request of council, and they gave a presentation on topics including the authority and responsibilities of the mayor versus the council, council-staff relations and codes of conduct.
Jackson, the town spokesperson, said orientations like these are typically given to newly elected councils, and a ministry spokesperson noted that Altmann and four other councillors had never been on council before.
Mayor and councillor barely talk
The presentation was made in October 2015, a year after the council was elected.
The second trip was in February 2016 and focused on informing the council about new provincial legislation.
Kroon said “not a whole lot has changed” since those visits. “Nothing’s getting fixed.”
His town is a short drive from Toronto’s downtown core, and its population — about 45,000 — has grown 89 per cent since 2006. In the next three years, it’s expected to grow by another 38 per cent. That means important decisions need to be made at town hall to plan for and accommodate the growth.
‘We haven’t had a substantive conversation in two years.’
– Hugo Kroon, town councillor, Whitchurch-Stouffville
Kroon accused Altmann of not advocating strongly enough for the community at the provincial level or at York Region council. He was also critical of Altmann’s leadership style and said the mayor doesn’t communicate with most members of council.
“We haven’t had a substantive conversation in two years,” Kroon said of his relationship with Altmann.
Other councillors acknowledged the tension on council and the problematic staff instability, and said they are trying to work around it.
“The challenges that we have faced have taken up a lot of our time, for sure, but nothing is getting missed,” Iain Lovatt said. Council is still functioning and Stouffville is “open for business,” he added.
Key staff vacancies
One of the bigger challenges the council has faced is the revolving door in the office of one of the town’s most critical positions: chief administrative officer. That person is essentially the town’s general manager and helps oversee a staff of nearly 500 and a budget of $87 million. In less than three years, four people have cycled through it, for a variety of reasons, and fire chief McKenzie is among them.
Vacancies in other key positions have been a consistent problem. The town’s former human resources manager, Pavlina Thompson, studied the turnover and told council last year that there was a low level of trust among staff. She later left for another job.
The mayor told CBC News in a recent interview that he is unfairly blamed for the staff exodus and that problems pre-dated his arrival at town hall. Altmann also acknowledged that “there’s a lot of friction between council,” but rejected any accusation that he’s the cause of it.
Without naming them, he alleged some councillors have been against him from the beginning, that they refuse to work with him and want to see him fail.
“Anything that they can do to impede me from gaining popularity with the public, they have attempted to do,” he said.
Altmann suggested that he is disliked by some at town hall because the “old boy’s club” is trying to keep control and they resent his success and youth. He was just 32 when he was elected mayor.
He defended his management style, saying he’s all about consensus, accountability and transparency. “I’m not a dictator,” he said.
The newly hired CAO, Roman Martiuk, is due to start next month. He could help calm some waters at town hall, but challenges still lie ahead, which now include replacing the top fire official. And then there’s the integrity commissioner’s report on Altmann’s “CSI-style” photo wall. It’s not clear when it will be completed, but it is sure to cause more waves around town.