Premier Caroline Cochrane was again under fire Monday for the dismissal of former Aurora College president Tom Weegar.
Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty characterized the dismissal of Weegar – who was also assistant deputy minister responsible for education renewal – as an overreach by Premier Caroline Cochrane. The former education minister questioned the legality of his dismissal.
“If the premier of the day can overstep the decision of the education minister, what’s stopping her from doing so with other departments, other statutes?” asked Lafferty, who served as education minister in 17th assembly.
Cochrane’s said her interpretation of the Aurora College Act held that the minister was responsible for the statutory appointment of presidents, while the premier had the power to hire and fire.
“At no time have I broken the law,” she said.
It was the latest salvo in a war of words that began last week.
Fort Smith has “lost confidence” in Department of Education
In a Monday news release, the Town of Fort Smith called for the government to the reinstate an independent board to govern Aurora College, and for an independent commissioner to oversee its transformation.
“With the Premier’s Office firing the President last week, after one year on the job, they have wasted a considerable amount of time and taxpayers money,” Mayor Lynn Napier stated in the news release.
Decrying “a revolving door of College Presidents, Education Ministers, strategic planning processes, and reviews,” she said the Town had lost confidence in the education department.
“There has been no progress, and there appears to be no real plan in place to achieve a goal of a polytechnic university,” Napier wrote.
Weegar open to discussing circumstances of departure, despite cabinet warnings of privacy
In statements on Friday, both Cochrane and Education, Culture and Employment Minister R.J. Simpson aimed to tamp down the ongoing controversy over Weegar’s firing, calling it a human resources matter.
Recent inconsistencies in the government’s account, as described by media reports, give a false impression of what actually happened, according to Simpson, who said at the end of last week that he would no longer comment on the subject.
Weegar, meanwhile, said he’s open to discussing the issue.
“I find it very interesting that the government now hides behind this cloak of, ‘sorry we can’t talk about personnel matters,'” said Weegar on Monday, adding if the government is worried about his privacy he will happily sign a document saying the government is off the hook.
In the legislative assembly on Friday, Simpson said he in fact recommended to Cochrane that Weegar be fired despite earlier suggesting to media – as the story was breaking – that the former Aurora president left on his own accord. He said previous reports inaccurately suggested the premier’s office didn’t consult him.
He said he met with the premier’s office several times to discuss Aurora College management over the last months.
“Two weeks ago, I approached the premier and expressed my belief that a change needed to happen, and it needed to happen sooner than later,” he continued, adding that he wasn’t involved in the negotiations or aware of the final details.
On Feb. 5, Simpson told Cabin Radio that Weegar stepped away to “pursue other opportunities.” This was based on a goodbye email Weegar sent to staff.
On Feb. 6, Simpson told reporters in a media scrum that he wasn’t shocked at the former president’s firing, but declined to elaborate. Regarding the apparent about-face, he said: “Obviously, stories change and it came out that it was termination.”
Weegar’s termination letter, obtained by NNSL Media, is copied to several bureaucrats within the Department of Finance and cabinet secretary Martin Goldney, but not to the education department and its Minister R.J. Simpson.
“We will make every effort to communicate openly about what is happening in departments, but we have to be sure that we do not say anything uncomplimentary or unprofessional in public,” Simpson told MLAs Friday regarding Weegar’s firing.
If those concerns were raised by the board of a college or university, according to Weegar, the issue would typically have been handled privately. The board would then frame a plan of action to raise them with the president.
This did not occur in the process outlined by Simpson, Weegar said, adding while there must have been concerns raised, no one approached him to discuss them.
It appears these concerns went to the premier but not him.
“Which is terribly, inherently dysfunctional, if you think about it,” he said. “If that process continues then you’re continually … terminating employees based on hearsay and whim and conversation and conjecture that may or may not be true.”
The story’s communications gaps were the result of “a number of mistruths that have been spoken and the minister was caught on them,” Weegar said.
Weegar noted he never had a one-on-one meeting with Simpson — something he would have done every two weeks with Cochrane when she was education minister during the last legislative assembly.
On Friday, Cochrane wrote in an emailed statement that she believes in “being accountable to the public for our government’s decisions, but we must ensure that we are very careful to respect the dignity and privacy of our public servants.”
“The Government of the Northwest Territories will not be commenting further on this human resources matter.”