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District staff departures draw concerns

Nine senior managers at the District of Mission have either retired or resigned from their positions in the last two and a half years, prompting two councillors to label the departures "excessive" and "abnormal."

Jennifer Kinneman, manger of civic engagement and corporate initiatives, is the latest employee to submit her letter of resignation last week.

Kinneman, who moved her family to Chilliwack from Ontario last year, has worked in Mission for 11 months. In May, she will begin her new role as manager of communication for the Fraser Valley Regional District.

"The commute is the reason," said Kinneman. It takes about 50 minutes to drive to Mission municipal hall from Chilliwack, she explained.

Other senior managers that have resigned from the district are Paul Gipps (who was Mission's deputy chief administrative officer), Kelly Ridley (deputy director of corporate administration), Barclay Pitkethly (deputy director of development services), Allan Reggin (manager of assets/infrastructure), and Rick Bomhof (director of engineering and public works).

All former Mission managers are now employed in other nearby communities in similar or higher ranking positions.

The managers who have retired in the past couple of years are Glen Robertson (chief administrative officer), Kim Allan (director of forest management), and Ian Fitzpatrick (fire chief).

Most of these vacancies have been filled and two temporary contractors are in place to look after the roles of engineering and public works director, and corporate and business services director (which includes the duties of the deputy director of corporate administration).

A total of 34 full-time employees have left their positions at the district between 2012 and March 3 of this year, while 13 have retired, according to figures provided by the district. The highest turnover occurred in 2013 with 10 people retiring and 18 full-time staff resigning.

By comparison, between 2009 and 2011, 28 full-time employees resigned from their posts at the district, while 12 retired.

In similar sized communities, Port Moody has lost four senior managers in the past two years, and Vernon has lost one.

The recent Mission turnovers have caught the attention of at least two councillors.

"I'm very concerned about it," said Coun. Jeff Jewell. "There has been a large number of departures recently. I believe it's an excessive amount."

The issue has been raised in closed council meetings, noted Jewell, who began noticing the situation late last year.

Coun. Tony Luck agreed the amount of staff leaving is "abnormal," and several exit interviews have identified low staff morale as one of the biggest problems. Luck didn't want to elaborate on the issue, but said ,"We're trying to identify where it's coming from."

The 2012 core services review (CSR) indicated there was an unusual amount of change at the district and staff morale was low, said Jewell, who noted employees were encouraged to participate in the review and he believed the problems existed before it became apparent.

At the time the CSR was conducted, there was uncertainty because of change in the organization, said Mission's chief administrative officer, Ken Bjorgaard, pointing out a new council was elected in the fall of 2011 and his predecessor, Glen Robertson, had announced his retirement after 25 years with the district.

"The survey was done at one point in time … I don't know how statistically verifiable it was," added Bjorgaard. "We're all working together to create a better organization. The organization as a whole is healthy fiscally, and is able to now move forward with major infrastructure projects and has reduced its debt."

Improvements have also been made to address morale issues.

"We've implemented a respectful workplace policy and we're trying to improve communications with a civic engagement manager," he said.

Bjorgaard also explained municipalities across B.C. face an aging workforce and as managers in other organizations retire, new career opportunities are created.

"We never want to stand in the way of people progressing in their careers."

The CAO believes Mission already offers competitive salary and benefits packages, but will be reviewing those.

"Employees are obviously concerned about the high level of staff turnover," said  CUPE local 1267 president Donna-Lee Lakes, who represents unionized workers at the District of Mission. "When positions are left vacant, or positions are not filled in a timely manner, the remaining employees are left doing their own jobs as well as the duties and responsibilities of the vacant positions."

This affects the health of employees, she added. "On a personal level … it has been difficult to say goodbye to so many of our co-workers."

Mission Mayor Ted Adlem says he's not surprised by the turnovers.

"Some people are resistant to change," he said, noting it was time for some to retire and others were offered opportunities to advance their careers. "Change is a good thing."

Council is only responsible for putting the CAO in place, explained Luck."It's up to the CAO to make the other hires. He's taking the time to get the right people in place, and the concern is it's taking too much time."

Bjorgaard responded, "The hiring process at the District of Mission has become more formalized and there is a lot more testing and analysis to make sure it is a fit for the district and employee."

"The hiring process is the most important thing organizations do," said Bjorgaard. "We have to have patience with it."

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