July 20th, 2024

Council blow-up brewed for months

By COLLIN GALLANT on July 9, 2024.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

A dispute between Medicine Hat Mayor Linnsie Clark and city manager Ann Mitchell began six months before the two squared off at an August 2023 council meeting, court documents show.

A report into the incident, for which Clark was found by council to have breached council’s code of conduct, states the mayor first grew concerned shortly after Mitchell was hired in February that year over rearranging two members of Clark’s direct staff.

The report, obtained by the News from Court of Kings Bench where Clark is appealing council’s decision to sanction her, also describe tense recess interactions at the August meeting, and discussions in the following days.

Unredacted documents state that Clark expressed some concern shortly after Mitchell started, that the new city manager was transferring council chief of staff and public relations advisor from the mayors office budget to general government. Under provincial regulations, council’s technically have only one employee.

The positions, created shortly after the 2021 election, were quietly eliminated last fall.

In early 2023, concerns over that issue as well as a larger corporate changes were discussed over several months, though Clark states her practice wasn’t to meet privately with Mitchell on major matters out of respect for the rest of council.

It came to a head when those changes were enacted in the summer, ahead of council’s vote to enact related bylaw changes, while Clark argues is out of order.

She felt Mitchell was “dismissive” of her concerns and told an investigator that she felt stonewalled by council colleagues.

“I think to a certain extent, there’s this feeling on council that we should just trust and compliment administration,” rather than providing oversight and risk assessment, Clark told the investigator, later stating “it’s not our job to do things wrong repeatedly.”

Coun. Shila Sharps, who eventually filed the complaint after a Clark challenged Mitchell during an August 21, 2023 presentation, told Clark in open council that “with all due respect, this has already been talked about and I don’t believe anyone around this table is actually in agreement with you.”

Clark has posed the disagreement as one of administrators overstepping their authority in enacting staff and operational changes without council approval.

Sharps and others have said they felt well-informed about the reorganization, required, according to administrators, to fill gaps left by a previous budget-slashing set of changes brought in by previous city manager Bob Nicolay.

Mitchell was hired in late 2022 by a committee including Clark and Coun. Shila Sharps as the city’s first permanent city manager in more than a year.

At the August meeting with Clark announced she had an outside legal opinion about potential ramifications of laying off staff without properly authority of Council.

That came after Clark says she raised the larger reorganization concern with council in July 4, in closed council.

Redacted portions of both the investigation report and Clark’s own response to investigator (left out of city release, but published in part by Clark on social media) include mentions council’s chief of staff and a public relations advisor.

The positions – to improve public communication and lobbying efforts – were funded via a council contingency fund for one year, but apparently left out of the 2023-24 city budget.

The conclusion of the report is that the accusation that Clark had violated the code by obtaining an outside legal opinion was unsubstantiated, but found evidence she had treated the city manager without “courtesy, dignity or respect and maliciously injured” Mitchell’s professional reputation.

A judicial review will consist of a one-day hearing in mid-August.

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