While nobody mentioned Saanich’s top cop by name, outrage over the new employment contract of Chief Constable Robert Downie loomed in the background as council debated a report into best financial practices for police departments. Black Press/File

Saanich looks to improve financial accountability for police

Saanich council has passed a motion that calls on the police board to consider a report that spells out various measures to improve financial accountability for police departments at an upcoming meeting with Saanich council. They also passed a motion that asks both bodies to “explore” how to implement best practices as the report from the Auditor General for Local Government describes them.

Council passed both motions as well as a motion endorsing the report unanimously. But outsiders might have noted that this level of unanimity barely covered up some significant disagreements about the nature of the report. The public also heard questions about whether council was trying to interfere in the affairs of the police board.

Council considered this issue after the public had heard last month that Saanich paid Chief Constable Bob Downie $378,790 following his retirement on July 31, then rehired him as a contractor for two years (plus an option year), with an annual salary of about $222,711 plus benefits, vacation, leaves of absence and expense reimbursements.

The arrangement has caused considerable outrage, but Mayor Richard Atwell has consistently defended it as a good deal for taxpayers, noting that it saves Saanich money in the present and in the future. The file has since sparked a public row between Atwell — who represents council on the police board — and the rest of council.

It was against this backdrop that Atwell and members of council — chief among them Coun. Colin Plant — sparred over the nature of the report and over the question whether council was trying to force something upon another body.

During discussion, Atwell said council was trying to force the police board to review a document that it had already received months ago. “I don’t think it is relevant anymore,” he said. Atwell however acknowledged that the police board had not publicly discussed it.

Plant noted that the wording of the motion was as “light” as possible. “This is not an external reach,” he said. “We would work with the police board to go through the proposed actions of the tool kit and find a mutual, beneficial way to work with each other,” he said.

Atwell eventually ruled the motion out of order, but a challenge from Coun. Fred Haynes supported by all councillors including the newest member of council — Coun. Karen Harper, whom Atwell had endorsed during the election campaign — brought the motion back to the floor, where it passed unanimously.

Atwell and Plant also disagreed about the substance of the report. While Atwell acknowledged that the report also offered recommendations for municipalities with independent police forces like Saanich, most of it deals with municipalities that contract policing with the RCMP.

Plant disagreed. The report is of value, he said. Otherwise, he would not have brought it forward.

Discussion however also softened language that would have committed Saanich to work with the police board to “fully implement” the best practices of the report. Saanich will now “explore” how to implement the best practices.

Haynes, who recommended the language change, said this wording maintains the separation between police board and council.

Coun. Dean Murdock however wondered if Saanich acted with too much nuance.

“To me, it seems a bit curious to put forward a word like explore after we have already endorsed the document,” he said. “It is clear that our intent is to find a way to implement the recommendations, and I suspect that the police board will expect that we come to the discussion with an intent to implement those best practices.”

Members of council, he said, are “flattering” themselves with the level of detail that they offering to the police board, he said.

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