Saanich police board members Lori Staples, Irwin Henderson, Tim Kane, Mayor Richard Atwell, Glen Crawford, Bruce Halsor and Mary Collins.

Contract pushes Saanich police board into public spotlight

It has been the recent subject of much scrutiny, but what exactly is the Saanich Police Board?

It governs Saanich’s police department, and entered the public spotlight when it approved changes to the employment status of Chief Constable Bob Downie, Saanich’s top cop. Under the changes, Downie received $378,791 following his retirement on July 31, then immediately returned to his job as a contractor for two years (plus an option year), with an annual salary of about $222,711 plus benefits, vacation, leaves and expense reimbursements.

The arrangement has caused a public outcry, and pushed the board into the public spotlight. An independent and autonomous authority established under the provincial Police Act, it performs both governance and oversight functions.

Its primary role is to “establish overall objectives and priorities for the provision of police services” after consultation with the chief constable, whom it also appoints and assesses. It also manages the department’s budget and handles collective bargaining. The board also possesses investigative powers into “matters concerning policing, law enforcement and crime prevention in the municipality.” These powers also give the police board the power to investigate complaints against the department.

The Police Act also spells out composition and appointment of members, who fall into the three categories: the mayor, who serves as board chair and council liaison; a person appointed by council; and members whom the Lieutenant-Governor appoints through an order-in-council.

Saanich’s police board currently has seven members. Mayor Richard Atwell as chair; council appointee Lori Staples; and Mary Collins, Glen Crawford, Bruce Hallsor, Irwin Henderson and Tim Kane. Two of its members – Staples and Hallsor – hold the designation of Queen’s Counsel, a title reserved for eminent lawyers. Collins retired as the President of the BC Health Association, Crawford works in financial management, Henderson has an extensive background in public administration, while Kane has worked in public relations.

The board stands apart from both Saanich council as well as the provincial government of the day. “This removes police boards from partisan politics and, at the same time, recognizes that both the municipality and the province have legitimate interests in municipal policing,” the board says on its site.

Atwell also stressed the independent nature of the board in a recent interview. The separation between council and the police board is analogous to the separation between church and state to avoid political interference, he said.

This of course does not mean that the two bodies are immune to tensions, as they played out earlier this year when Atwell’s council colleagues sent a letter to the police board to register their disappointment with the handling of Downie’s contract.

While the letter “recognizes and respects” the autonomy of the Police Board to manage the operation and staffing of the Saanich police department, it also appears to question the substance of the contract and its announcement.

“Council is responsible for ensuring Saanich is well governed and transparent in its operations and therefore is disappointed that we were not made aware by the Police Board of the board’s decision regarding changes to the employment status of Chief Downie until the media release was issued,” it reads.

Some might read this language as an attempt by council to pull rank over the police board, a charge that the signatories of the letter deny.

Coun. Fred Haynes, who chaired the in-camera meeting that drafted the letter as acting mayor, said Atwell missed an opportunity to inform council in advance of the arrangement with Downie, explain the rationale behind it, and seek additional input from council.

For someone who campaigned on openness and transparency, Atwell missed an opportunity, said Haynes in an interview earlier this month.

Haynes said the signatories recognize the exclusive domain of the Police Board, when it comes to making personnel decisions, including contracts, which do not require council’s approval.

“That said, council has a responsibility for the overall budget and management of Saanich Police as part of the municipality,” said Haynes.

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