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Job at VIHA that caused a scandal still waiting to be filled

Dec 30 2011

The top communications job at Vancouver Island Health Authority remains empty, despite a scandal last month that resulted from a supposed urgency to fill the strategic public relations position.

The contract position of VIHA vice-president of communications and external relations, now vacant for more than nine months, remains unfilled. The health authority maintains that the need to hire someone remains "very urgent," but will not be advertising for a new candidate until the new year.

The delay has reinforced speculation among critics that the job was directly awarded as a result of cronyism, rather than an urgency to fill the position.

"It completely undermines the credibility of their explanation," said New Democrat finance critic Bruce Ralston.

"Now that they are not going to fill it with a Liberal insider, it's no longer urgent or important."

However, in a pre-Christmas interview, VIHA president Howard Waldner stressed it was not a politically motivated appointment and he remained committed to finding a qualified candidate quickly.

"This is a key professional role within our organization and the board . . . is absolutely clear in giving me direction to find someone to take on this responsibility as soon as we can early in the new year," said Waldner.

On Nov. 22, 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. The process is required for contracts that pay more than $75,000 under the health authority's own "fair business practice" policy.

Waldner directly awarded Stewart Muir, formerly deputy managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, a $161,800 contract to be its vice-president of communications and external relations.

The contract was rescinded the next day after the Times Colonist story appeared.

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

The premier distanced herself from the scandal, saying she had nothing to do with Muir's hiring or exit and that VIHA had not followed its own rules.

Four people were interviewed for the job and Muir was considered the best of the four candidates, Waldner said.

"I was not asked to give that guy a job," Waldner said. "We play it straight and that didn't occur."

Waldner had said VIHA's board of directors wanted the position filled immediately - we "needed to get someone on board reasonably quickly" - and did not have time for a lengthy tender process.

To directly award the contract, Waldner used an exemption under the fair business policy that allows direct awards in certain circumstances - including urgent and time-sensitive situations.

However, at the time, the position of vice-president communications had been vacant for at least eight months.

"We play by the book," Waldner said. "I don't do special favours, nor would anybody else. I've seen organizations where people do that, but that doesn't happen at VIHA."

Filling the strategic communications job at VIHA remains a priority as a "small leadership team" within VIHA scrambles to back-fill the job, Waldner said.

The position of vice-president of communications is empty because Neil Sweeney, who held the position, took a one-year leave of absence from VIHA on March 14 to become deputy minister of government communication and public engagement.

That leave has been extended to 2013 since Sweeney has been appointed Clark's deputy minister in charge of corporate priorities.

Sweeney takes the job from Mentzelopoulos who has been shuffled to deputy minister in charge of government communications and public engagement.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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