SAO resigns after conflicts with council

Hay River’s Senior Administrative Officer, Michael Richardson, recently announced his resignation.
— NNSL file photo

Michael Richardson has announced his resignation as Hay River’s senior administrative officer, citing irreconcilable differences with town council.
Richardson gave his 30-day notice on Tuesday, Feb. 19.
He said it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, but rather one that gradually developed over time.
“I became a bit concerned during the elections,” he said, referring to the Oct. 15 municipal elections in Hay River.
“I wasn’t sure how council would turn out. The eight months leading up to the election — after Kelly Schofield quit and Ken Latour became mayor — were very positive.
“We got a lot of stuff done and it certainly wasn’t easy. We were very productive as a team.”
Richardson said he expressed some relief following the election, when he felt excited to work with a new group of talented councillors.
“I thought it couldn’t get any better; the new councillors had a great variety of skills,” he remembers thinking.
In November, barely a month after election day, Richardson said council began focusing on smaller issues, some of which (such as existing hiring practices) surfaced outside of meetings. That’s when he began feeling stigmatized.
“This reflected a lot of the things that used to happen when Terry was here,” he said, referring to Terry Molenkamp, his predecessor who was fired by the town in April 2011.
“I started feeling like I was being painted with the same brush as Terry.”
He says he felt like council was imposing certain measures on him, trying to micro-manage him a way that they believed would prevent what happened with Molenkamp. He said these pressures drove a wedge between Richardson and council.
“This evolved into a disagreement between me and them, a point of contention for both of us,” he said. “We should be focusing on the strategic level instead of on minor details. This distracted us in terms of our effectiveness as a team.”
Richardson felt that after nearly two years in the position, he had created positive change in the community. He didn’t understand how he hadn’t made enough of an effort to warrant that trust with council.
At the end of November, he told himself that if his situation didn’t improve by the spring, he would think about more dramatic changes to his life.
Fast forward to the end of January, and things had not gotten better. Richardson sent council a strongly-worded letter that stated he was concerned with the town’s direction, and that it was important for council to respect the rules of the workplace.
After a positive meeting between both parties, Richardson thought he and council were back on the right path.
“After the meeting, I thought things were good, but there were no follow-up actions,” he said.
The situation deteriorated over the following weeks and reached the boiling point during a Feb. 18 council meeting.
A past mistake ­— failure to obtain a minister’s signature for a bylaw — prompted council to bring the issue up at the meeting.
A heated exchange that night lead Richardson to feeling undermined, and struggling to find a solution that would mend the relationship.
“Essentially they told me to suck it up and grow a thicker skin, but that’s not a solution,” Richardson said, referring to an in-camera session that took place that night.
The next day, Mayor Andrew Cassidy, who was out of town that week, had a conversation with Richardson on the phone and stood behind council. That was Richardson’s tipping point.
“I made my decision that day,” he said. “I know I can do better, more satisfying work elsewhere.”
Richardson said both parties have come a long way in the past two years.
“They got rid of Terry and asked if I wanted to be the interim SAO, I saw a lot of things that I wanted to fix,” he said. “I feel like we (the town) have really regained some level of trust with the community. I know I’ve made a positive impact here.
“If you look at the team we have, there are a lot of strong people there. We were able to develop a strong bond as a team and it is a lot more positive than it was when I first started in this position.”
Cassidy said council has a few options for the time being, including some current employees they could potentially rely on for the position. He said the town was also speaking with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs as well as the NWT Association of Communities for names of people who could help out.
Richardson, who owns a business in town with his wife Tiffany, has no plans to leave Hay River.
“I will still be in the community, my family is here and this is my home,” he said.  “This is a positive thing for me, there are a lot of possibilities on the horizon.”
His three-year contract with the town was scheduled to end on Oct. 18, 2014.

— Myles Dolphin