Sturgeon County fires its CAO

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Terms of severence package not revealed

Sturgeon County councillors are looking for a new chief executive this week after firing their award-winning CAO.

County council held a special meeting Tuesday to figure out how they would hire a new CAO.

The move came a week after they had voted to terminate the employment of CAO Peter Tarnawsky after a long in camera discussion added to the Nov. 28 agenda by Coun. Wayne Bokenfohr.

After coming back into public on Nov. 28, Bokenfohr moved that Tarnawsky’s employment would “terminated on December 5, 2017, without just cause, due to a mutual parting of the ways as Council believes a change in leadership is needed,” and that he be compensated in accordance with the terms of his contract.

The motion passed 5-2, with councillors Karen Shaw and Susan Evans opposed.

Council also voted 5-2 in favour of Bokenfohr’s motion to appoint county manager of corporate support Rick Wojtkiw as interim CAO, with Shaw and Evans opposed.

These decisions happened less than 24 hours before council was set to begin deliberations on its 2018 budget. Those budget talks have now been rescheduled to Dec. 13 from 1 to 3:30 p.m., with additional sessions (if needed) scheduled to start at 9 a.m. on Dec. 19, 20, and 21, said county spokesperson Sheila Moore.

Details on compensation payments made to Tarnawsky have not been made public. The Gazette has submitted a freedom of information request on the matter.

Why and why now

Mayor Alanna Hnatiw said council made this decision based on the change in leadership that resulted from the last election. Council and Tarnawsky had decided to part ways, and it made no sense to keep him on staff during budget talks if he wouldn’t be around to implement it.

“I’m not going to take away from the fact that the county saw some successful developments under Mr. Tarnawsky’s leadership, however council believes a change in leadership is needed to continue to lead Sturgeon County into the future,” Hnatiw said.

“If the people were happy with exactly the way things were going I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” said Hnatiw, who defeated former Tom Flynn in the election.

When asked why he moved for Tarnawsky’s termination, Bokenfohr said council’s decision was “a mutual parting of ways” and declined to elaborate further.  He acknowledged that the county would have to pay Tarnawsky severance, but said “that’s the cost of doing business sometimes.”

Shaw said she was caught off-guard by Bokenfohr’s motion. Tarnawsky had just received the prestigious R.W. Hay Award for excellence in rural administration from the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC) and the Society of Local Government Managers in mid-November – Shaw read a congratulatory letter from the latter group into council record just prior to the Tarnawsky matter – and was highly qualified for his job, she said.

“From a taxpayer point of view, to remove somebody without cause, what’s the implications for the taxpayer?” Shaw said.

Evans said she voted against the council resolution because she did not agree with it.

“I thought (Tarnawsky) did a tremendous job and he will be missed.”

Coun. Dan Derouin did not comment on his vote, but described council’s decision as “a mutual parting of ways.” Coun. Neal Comeau said Tarnawsky and council parted on mutual terms.

Coun. Patrick Tighe did not respond to a request for comment.

Tarnawsky signs off

Tarnawsky worked for Sturgeon County for eight years and served as CAO for six.

His rise to that role was unusual. In 2011, staffers under Tarnawsky’s supervision told the Alberta Utilities Commission to approve the controversial Heartland Transmission Project “without delay.” This displeased council, former councillor David Kluthe told the Gazette, which prompted then-CAO Chris Micek to fire Tarnawsky. Council in turn all-but-forced Micek to resign and voted to hire Tarnawsky in his place.

In the introductory remarks read out at the AAMDC conference prior to his receiving the R.W. Hay award (which consists of a trophy shaped like a grain elevator and $2,000), Tarnawsky was credited with improving the state of Sturgeon County’s staff and finances and earning the county great renown, including being declared Alberta’s best county by Alberta Venture in 2016.

In a Facebook message, Tarnawsky said he enjoyed his eight years with the county and would have been pleased to serve out the rest of his five-year contract.

“I was surprised and disappointed that council decided it wanted to go in a different direction, one that did not include me. I have agreed to step down. The terms of my departure are not public.”

When asked to explain why county council’s motion said he was “terminated” from his job if he agreed to step down (which would imply he submitted his resignation), Tarnawsky declined to comment.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.