The loathsome dismissal of Halifax’s planning chief
One of the truly loathsome things you can legally do in a workplace is fire someone without giving them notice or a reason, which is what the City of Halifax did to planning chief Bob Bjerke on Aug. 22, just four years after he started the job.
Legally, senior staff had no obligation to discuss it in advance with the Mayor Michael Savage or Council, so they didn’t. They could have done so as a matter of courtesy, given Council’s obviously critical involvement with the city’s planning. At the very least, it would have been professional to give a heads up to Savage, who was elected to lead Council and the city.
The reptilian style of Bjerke’s dismissal suggests that a small group of people had been quietly undermining him for a long time. This is a common office dynamic: members of a cabal constantly reinforce each other’s distaste for someone until, finally, they are all convinced their victim doesn’t deserve civil treatment, such as a chance to improve his perceived poor performance. Such as what professional HR people do. But Bjerke got neither notice nor explanation, rendering his dismissal a fait accompli before anyone could stop it and making it harder to mount a case of wrongful dismissal.
The tactic also liberates plotters from unwelcome advice. For example, given Savage’s responsibilities, wouldn’t it have been wise to ask him what impact the summary dismissal of such a key director would have on Council’s planning agenda and the city’s reputation? As a politician, answering those questions is part of Savage’s skill-set and ought to be in his job description. There’s the rub, of course. What do you do if the mayor affirms senior staff’s authority to dismiss someone, but advises against it? Answer: you change course or prepare to write a bigger severance cheque than you planned.
So, Bjerke was treated like garbage. You can admire the tactic, but not the tacticians.
By coincidence, Council hasn’t met since Aug. 15, the week before Bjerke got the ax, and won’t meet again until Sept. 5, two weeks after. It’s possible councillors will say nothing on that occasion because staff hiring and firing are outside their purview. But they ARE answerable if the planning process goes off the rails, again, so they may have some pointed questions about whether they are being well-served by senior staff.
Staff will remind Council and the public that the topic is a “personnel matter” and so, according to the city charter, it must be debated in secret. That is wrong: the charter gives council the OPTION to meet in secret, but does not REQUIRE it.
Next, we’ll be told council can’t discuss it publicly because of solicitor-client privilege. Again, this is wrong. Solicitor-client privilege binds the SOLICITOR to secrecy, but the client is perfectly free to discuss her own business, even if her lawyer is opposed to the idea.
We may also be told open discussion would prejudice the city’s position in the (likely) event of litigation, again costing taxpayers more money. Me, I think it’s worth the price just to get a peek at City Hall’s inner workings.
As a mere civic peasant, I’m not meant to know about Bjerke’s performance and I don’t. But the despicable process of his dismissal does bring to mind a quote from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.”