One of the city's key senior managers is off the job and has retained a lawyer after an apparent prank by top-level managers backfired, The Free Press has learned. Glenn Howlett, general manager of community services, has been off work on stress leave since days after the Nov. 10 civic election and has retained high-profile London lawyer John Judson.
Judson is the lawyer hired by former acting city manager Jeff Malpass and former human rights specialist Catherine Burr, in both cases to negotiate departure settlements with the city.
If he leaves, Howlett would be the sixth top-ranking city official to depart under a cloud of controversy in the last two years.
Others include former police chief Al Gramolini, Malpass, Burr, former city manager George Duncan and fire Chief Dave Hodgins, set to leave his post Jan. 19.
It appears elected officials have been kept in the dark as to why Howlett, who earns more than $155,000 a year and is responsible for more than a third of the city's budget, was apparently driven off the job by what some have likened to high school high jinks.
Sources say Howlett, a nearly 30-year veteran of city administration, was sent a "dummy" resolution in October, designed to appear as if it came from board of control, telling him he had to complete a report on the city's controversial corporate renewal plan far sooner than expected.
Howlett, who took the memo as genuine, wasn't amused.
Sources say it was the final straw amid mounting internal friction within the senior leadership team and pressures of preparing what's been touted as one of the toughest budgets in London's modern history.
Howlett confirmed this week he's retained Judson, but was reluctant to comment.
"I care to make no comment," he said when reached at home. "This is not what I'm looking forward to," he said of a potential news story.
"I've been through enough. I'll take my lead from my lawyer (Judson) and he will be my spokesperson."
Judson couldn't be reached for comment.
With council already under fire for more than three years of controversy over harassment issues and leaks at city hall, some politicians have reached breaking point -- particularly when they heard the latest episode involved top managers expected to lead by example.
"I throw my hands up in the air," said veteran Coun. Ab Chahbar. "I am deeply troubled by what you're telling me and we've got to try to find out why this is happening to us."
Chahbar said it's time to turn over a new leaf: "We've got to stop running at each other and start running the affairs of the City of London."
Like all politicians contacted, Chahbar expressed praise and confidence in Howlett -- "he's a very valued member of our senior leadership team and I look forward to him returning to his job."
No politicians contacted this week would confirm the existence of the phoney resolution, citing confidentiality over a personnel issue.
City manager Bob Blackwell also declined comment.
When pressed, Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco acknowledged she expects professionalism from staff.
"I expect from any individuals who works for the City of London a level of professionalism and when and if I ever have to deal with situations that are beyond that, that's what I'm going to do, but I'm not going to deal with those situations through the media."
Deputy Mayor Tom Gosnell, while not confirming the prank, said council is determined to get to the bottom of the issue.
"You can rest assured that we're taking this very seriously. We consider it a personnel issue right now, but at the appropriate time there will be a full airing of this issue. I have a very high regard for Glenn and I hope he'll be back working for us as soon as he's well enough to."
Four directors are filling in for Howlett in his absence -- recreation director Janie Romoff, Ontario Works director Jennifer Kirkham, operations and financial management director Cindy Howard and Dearness services director Jim Hignett.
DeCicco was unsure whether the four are receiving acting pay.
Controller Bud Polhill said he understood Howlett was off "on a stress-related situation" and he didn't ask any details. "I'd sure hope this wasn't some joke," he said. "I'd be extremely concerned if that happened."
Howlett -- who oversees a budget of $170 million, including Ontario Works (welfare), and a staff of more than 400 -- began working with the city in 1976. His department also oversees recreation services and the city's Dearness Home for the aged.
He was apparently on vacation when the gag resolution was received and was contacted on his time off and told of the impending deadline for the corporate renewal report.
TROUBLE AT THE TOP
News that community services general manager Glenn Howlett has retained London lawyer John Judson while off the job on stress leave, strikes a familiar refrain. Recent, top-level departures from city hall and its extended operations:
- This month: Fire Chief Dave Hodgin takes a job as British Columbia's fire commissioner following a spat between the chief and Peter Steblin, manager of environmental services. A memo obtained by The Free Press had Hodgins claiming he was "verbally chastised" by Steblin after a committee meeting." This experience was extremely disturbing, demeaning, humiliating, embarrassing and totally unacceptable to me," the memo quotes Hodgins.
- 2003: Human rights specialist Catherine Burr, hired to combat harassment at city hall, resigns after complaining some senior managers threatened the independence of her role.
- 2003: Former city manager George Duncan leaves only eight months after he joined the city and following months of clashes with council members over leaks of confidential information.
- 2002: Former acting city manager Jeff Malpass leaves after a falling out with council and Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco, primarily over his offer to forgo vacation after already cashing it in and contradictions between Malpass and the mayor over overtime payments during a strike by outside workers in 2001.
- 2002: Former police chief Al Gramolini, who pleaded guilty to a fraud charge based on allegations he had submitted about $1,100 worth of false expense claims while he was London's chief of police, resigns.
THE RENEWAL PLAN
- The corporate renewal plan -- brainchild of former city manager George Duncan -- has become a flashpoint that's pitted the city's two unions against both administration and council.
- Based on a "team-building" concept, unions for the city's inside and outside workers maintain it's actually designed to circumvent workers' rights, weaken the union and jeopardize jobs.
- The plan has become the subject of an unfair labour practices complaint before Ontario Labour Relations Board, to be heard Jan. 29.
- It threatens to become a sticking point as the union for the city's outside workers tries to secure its first contract since one reached in the summer of 2001 after a bitter 28-day strike that disrupted garbage pickup. Fallout from the strike -- and the revelation former acting city manager Jeff Malpass was paid more than $1,000 a day in overtime during the labour dispute -- ultimately led to Malpass's departure.