February 23rd, 2024

Council cites possible privacy issues in proposed ‘sunshine list’

By COLLIN GALLANT on December 19, 2023.

From left, Couns. Alison Van Dyke, Shila Sharps and Ramona Robins listen to discussion at Monday night's city council meeting.--News photo Collin Gallant

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

Medicine Hat could provide more information on salaries at city hall, but how much won’t be known until the spring.

Council on Monday debated a motion by Coun. Andy McGrogan that asked for the city to annually publish a list of salary and benefits by position, the number of positions, but not attached to specifically named employees.

That’s similar to several other cities in Alberta, where the provincial government publishes a name-by-name list.

Councillors approved further study of the motion and a report by the end of March on the potential pitfalls and privacy concerns.

McGrogan made notice of motion, saying it could help with attracting qualified workforce, aid council and answer some calls for transparency from the public.

“A more transparent structure will be beneficial and has value to the public, and give confidence that public money is well managed,” he said. “A large percentage of our budget is people and the list will help make us the best decisions” heading into budget deliberations in 2024 and when corporate roles and offices are reorganized.

An overview, as he envisioned it, would include the number of positions and salary and benefits compensation, but not the names of employees – similar to what’s already available in union contracts and the city’s own financial report that outlines senior staff compensation.

Councillors spoke in favour of the concept but also debated potential privacy concerns.

“I understand the motivation,” Coun. Robert Dumanowski said, “But my worry is that it will be used to disparage city employees that are just trying to earn an honest living.

“How do we achieve the best outcome and the transparency that’s called for in the motion?”

City manager Ann Mitchell said the director of human resources could provide an overview of potential problems by the early second quarter of 2024.

Coun. Shila Sharps said a larger HR review should be completed before a list is published, but it is problematic from her perspective.

“There are well paid positions for sure, but there are others that are not at market, and that’s what recruiters do; they wait to see wage grids and go after people who are undervalued,” she said. “It’s a cut-throat market.”

Since 2017, the Alberta provincial sunshine list provides information on compensation for employees earning $125,888 or more each year in salary or severance.

That threshold is adjusted each year in relation to the consumer price index, and the names and corresponding amounts have been published each year since 2017.

But, the legislation doesn’t extend to the municipal level, though Edmonton and Calgary’s list provides salaries and job titles but not names, similar to the practice in Red Deer and Fort McMurray.

Coun. Romana Robins, who is a manager for Alberta Justice and on the Alberta sunshine list, said the size of the local workforce could make it easy to identify individual local workers.

Coun. Cassi Hider said she generally supports the motion, but it could be problematic in some cases.

“We’re a small close-knit community … we need to be respectful,” said Hider.

The City of Medicine Hat already publishes a compilation of its most-senior administrators each year alongside council-member compensation in its annual financial statements.

As well, compensation for all non-management positions is listed in a variety of union contracts available on the city’s website. Wage bands that cover more than 1,000 city employees, including at the low end, $17.51 per hour for attendants at the Esplanade.

Among municipal workers, the highest unionized salaries are earned by construction and water treatment supervisors. For 2023, they topped out at $47.86 per hour in 2023, or about $96,000 annually, not including benefits.

Power utility foremen, $63.66 per hour, and operators and journeymen electricians can earn close to $60 per hour, according to their collective bargaining agreement.

Among first responders, first-class firefighters earn $110,000 and platoon chief’s 148,600, while the chief and several deputies’ salaries are not known.

Similarly, the pay for chief of police and several inspectors is not known, but a staff sergeant earns $149,100 and non-senior constables $69,000 to start and $115,800 at maximum rate.

Total compensations for most senior officials is also listed each year in the city’s financial statements.

Including salary and benefits, the position of chief administrator cost was $464,000 in 2022, but that included several overlapping terms of employment.

Retiring city manager Bob Nicolay left the position in January but was paid until July while interim CAOs were engaged. The figure in 2021 and 2022 was about $380,000.

Ten other designated officers – mainly the heads of divisions – earned a total of $1.74 million, or $174,000 on average including benefits, in 2022.

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