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Health authority hires PR chief

May 02 2012

Vancouver Island Health Authority has hired a new head of communications on the heels of a hiring process that generated the kind of publicity the organization is trying to avoid.

Antoinette (Toni) O'Keeffe is VIHA's new acting vice-president and chief of communications and external relations. She will be paid a $160,046 base salary plus benefits and a housing allowance. Her one-year term begins May 7.

O'Keeffe fills the role vacated by Neil Sweeney, who took a one-year leave of absence from VIHA on March 14, 2011, to work for the provincial government. In January, that leave was extended to March 2013.

In November, the Times Colonist revealed that the husband of one of Premier Christy Clark's top advisers had been awarded a contract at VIHA without a competitive bidding process, which is required for contracts that pay more than $75,000 under the health authority's own "fair business practice" policy.

VIHA interviewed one other person before Health Authority president Howard Waldner directly awarded Stewart Muir, former deputy managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, a $161,800 contract to be its vice-president of communications and external relations.

Muir's wife, Athana Mentzelopoulos, was at the time Clark's deputy minister for corporate priorities. She was also a bridesmaid at Clark's wedding.

In documents, VIHA cited government secrecy as the reason for not following its own hiring rules. The contract was rescinded the day after the story appeared in the newspaper.

The premier distanced herself from the scandal, saying she had nothing to do with Muir's hiring or exit.

Health Minister Mike de Jong also criticized the health authority, saying provincial government confidentiality does not exist as a reason to avoid an open-procurement practice.

In the latest open recruitment process, VIHA said it had 26 applications for the job and interviewed three people. Waldner and a board representative made the ultimate hiring decision.

O'Keeffe is the former executive director of communications and public relations for Vancouver Island University. She has also worked with other B.C.-based post-secondary institutions and with Human Resources Development Canada.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com rfshaw@timescolonist.com

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