In-depth interview with Elgin St. Thomas Public Health CEO Cynthia St. John


Cynthia St. John

On June 28, Elgin St. Thomas Public Health CEO Cynthia St. John met with City Scope to shed light on issues raised over the past several months, including staff cutbacks, her salary increase in 2009 of approx. $25,000 and the status of the organization’s current leasing arrangement with the County of Elgin for their office space at 99 Edward St. in St. Thomas
Also present was John Matsui of Makin’ Headlines, the London, Ont. public releations firm recently hired by ESTPH.
What follows is an expanded version of the interview that appeared in City Scope on July 3. We have not included incidental and background comments from John.
We start with Cynthia’s opening preamble.

CYNTHIA: I’m certainly committed to be as open and honest as I can be. Part of the challenge is matters of property, personnel and labour relations are closed-session board items and so it becomes a challenge in how you talk about them. Hopefully today we are able to have a conversation and share as much information as we can with each other. If there is something I’m not saying it’s because of that. It’s nothing to do with anything else.

I can certainly commit to saying there were staffing changes. Whether they were resignations, etc., I wouldn’t get in to. There were staffing changes made in March. And then there were changes made in April, solely budget related. The changes made in March were not.
We had budget reductions, 3.45 FTE (full-time employee positions). Most of that we achieved by attrition and job sharing. We are actually very happy about that. We had dollars set aside to bring in additional help in certain areas if we needed it, and we got rid of that pool (of money).
The rest of the changes in terms of reduction in people’s hours have been phased in over the last couple of months.
CITY SCOPE: Does the hiring of a public relations firm not take away dollars from the delivery of community health services?
CYNTHIA: No, in fact we have a budget line here for communications. Most health units have full communications departments. We don’t. We have a communications line in our operating budget as the need arises. The fee we have paid Mr. Matsui is extremely small and within in our annual operating budget. Mr. Matsui came to us via what was being printed (in the Times-Journal), but with a different goal in mind as well, which was how do we continue to use the right vehicles to get our message out about our public health programming. We’re looking at social media like Facebook, we’re not on that right now. He’s putting together a plan around that as well. There is no eroding of any programs and services in hiring him.
I called up John and said “how do we get our message out when I’m restricted in what I can say?” How can I talk with the press about matters I can’t go into a whole lot of detail?
CITY SCOPE: Was John hired to deal with the delivery of services to the county and St. Thomas, or is it to deal with some of the questions we’ve raised?
JOHN: All of it. I see this as a short-term situation, trying to create communication links here and then we move forward.
CITY SCOPE: The county has offered you a generous new lease arrangement for Edward Street. What is the status of these discussions?
CYNTHIA: The matter of the lease is considered property and it is discussed in close session. But I can tell you this, it is this board’s opinion it should look at all of its options. I don’t think it ever thought it would just take one offer without looking at all of the options. Currently the board has decided it needs more information in order to be able to make a long-term decision for public health. So that is what this assessment (space needs request for proposal) is supposed to provide. I don’t think any good organization that is looking after taxpayer money in the most transparent way should take its first proposal and run. It needs to look at all of its options. I think the board felt strongly about that. Truthfully this board is very committed to fiscal responsibility when it comes to where we are located.
CITY SCOPE: But the offer from the county is half of what you are currently paying.
CYNTHIA: That isn’t the only offer the board considered.
CITY SCOPE: Is there a better offer now out there?
CYNTHIA: That’s what they’re asking.
CITY SCOPE: What are the limitations with your current space?
CYNTHIA:I think the board is saying if we stay here, that’s definitely an option, but let’s make sure the way this building is configured is right for the programs and services we offer. So there is accessibility to clients, there is enough space for staff to work in. At this moment, the square footage we currently occupy is not enough room,
CITY SCOPE: However the county as offered you an additional 4,000 square feet.
CYNTHIA:The question is will that be enough space and that is exactly what we hope this firm will provide. Do we need to reconfigure anything because there are accessibility standards we have to uphold.
CITY SCOPE: Are those standards not currently in place”
CYNTHIA: Yes, but let’s take privacy for example. Where we locate our sexual health clinic is a really good example. We want to be sure that where that is maximizes anonymity for our clients. They are coming here for a variety of reasons in sexual health and we want to have as much anonymity as possible. Right now they have to walk through our front doors and around the centre of our building to get to sexual health and so it’s those kinds of things we’re looking at. We’ve talked about the need to look at those things over the last several years, but until your lease is up you’re not going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating a building in a current lease. You’re going to wait until it’s up and then decide what should the configuration look like. And that is exactly where the board is at.
CITY SCOPE: Was that the purpose of the trip to Owen Sound with your managers where they recently built a $20 million public health facility?
CYNTHIA: We actually went to a couple of different health units. In Grey-Bruce, don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful building, but it’s not a building we can afford. It’s not even in the scheme of reality for Elgin St. Thomas Public Health. What we were looking at was flow and function. How did you put all of your central supply together, because that’s one of the things we want to do for efficiency. We want to locate all of resource in one area so we always know what we have. Right now they’re in a variety of storage rooms and we have off-site storage as well. That was a big focus of that visit. Where do you locate things and how to you make that work for your front-line staff so they can get the resources timely and get returned easily. It wasn’t about the copper on the side of the building.
Grey-Bruce was a good one to visit mainly because it’s relatively new. It’s not about opulence or wanting marble or anything like that. It’s about if you started from nothing or an existing building, what are the things you considered that we should be thinking about that, having never done this before, you should be thinking about. It’s been 20 years since we moved into this building. I can honestly say, I can’t believe this board will cancel programs and services to build a big, honking building.
CITY SCOPE: By pursing such a path are you getting away from your main core of delivery services to the community?
CYNTHIA: We have to make a decision, not for today, but for the long term for public health. Because whatever goes down for public health, whether it’s the existing lease or it moves, that’s not a decision they live with for a week. The board has consistently said to make sure we make the right decision for public health. What it needs for its programs and services, what the staff needs and what the community expects. We need to look at every single option. There has been some great discussion at the table about that. I’m actually pleased that the board has taken time to really consider this and that is in the best interest for ratepayers of the county.
CITY SCOPE: Did board members travel to Owen Sound?
CYNTHIA: No. I actually thought about that, but then I thought well, if we get to that stage where we’re looking at building a new building or we get to the design stage in terms of what this building might look like if we renovate it, then we’ll do that kind of thing. But it wouldn’t just be Grey-Bruce that I would want them to look at, I think it would be more that I would bring in plans and blueprints.
CITY SCOPE: Did the managers travel individually to Owen Sound?
CYNTHIA: No. We shared two cars. And we looked at renting a bigger van, but it was more money than it would be for two cars to go up. We had meetings in one of the cars where we talked about a number of business things. We spent a lot of time individually with groups of staff at Grey-Bruce.
CITY SCOPE: Let’s look at the increase in your salary in 2009, an increase of approximately $25,000.
CYNTHIA: Elgin St. Thomas Public Health has three unions, OPSEU, ONA and CUPE. They all have individual collective agreements that include overtime. Staff can earn overtime, either time in lieu or they are paid for it, it depends on the collective agreement. And there isn’t a limit to that. For non-union staff there is a limit. A number of years ago, a policy was put in place where we limited non-union overtime to no more than 70 hours.
That doesn’t mean you only work 70 hours. Last year there were hundreds and hundreds of overtime hours put in by individuals on the management team. But you could only be compensated for 70 of those hours. Compensation is usually time off, in lieu and there’s a maximum of 70 hours. But, in extraordinary circumstances, the board may consider to pay for some of that time because there just won’t be the time to take that time off.
H1N1 was an extraordinary circumstance. I realize that it doesn’t seem like to the public like we had a pandemic, but in June, 2009 the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and this was an unbelievable year for public health. We ran the largest immunization campaign in Canadian history. I can’t tell you the amount of effort staff put into that campaign. It truly was amazing. Some of our managers put in hundreds and hundreds of hours of overtime and non-union staff were paid for some of those 70 hours. When you are a manager, I don’t think you can expect to make back every hour you put in.
CITY SCOPE: Is it normal practice for the CEO to be paid overtime?
CYNTHIA: When the board considered the policy a number of years ago, it looked at what health units did typically. Some health units don’t have a cap, and some do. We put in a cap of 70 hours. This doesn’t come near what a lot of managers, including myself, put in.
CITY SCOPE: Taking in to account the overtime and extra pay period you mentioned in the past, the salary figure still doesn’t seem to add up.
CYNTHIA: There was vacation in there and I absolutely commit to you, Ian, the non-union staff, including the directors and myself, did not receive any general wage increase that was higher than anybody else.
CITY SCOPE: Then in 2010, your salary should slide back?
CYNTHIA: You’re going to see that.
CITY SCOPE: What is staff morale like at Elgin St. Thomas Public Health? Has there been a significant number of employees grievances filed over the past few years?
CYNTHIA: I don’t know what is typical in other health units, but I don’t feel our grievances have quadrupled in the last while, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say budget reductions are hard. I don’t know if there is a specific grievance unresolved at this time. Usually when a grievance is filed here, we sit down with a union representative and we say how can we resolve this. And truthfully, that’s usually what happens. I’ve been here 10 years and in 10 years there’s never been budget reductions. So, it’s been hard. I’m really pleased the organization was able to do the majority of those (staff) reductions via attrition and desired job sharing. But nevertheless, change is difficult, but this staff is extraordinarily talented at what it does. It’s a challenging budget and I don’t know what next year is going to look like. It’s too hard to predict at this time. I don’t know what 2011 is going to look like. But, I can say, the board does everything it can possible before it cuts programs and services.

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One thought on “In-depth interview with Elgin St. Thomas Public Health CEO Cynthia St. John

  1. Ian, I sense you’re spinning your wheels on this one, and as you mention in your Saturday column most of the information given to you was dated.
    The use of phrases and words like, “I’m certainly committed to be as open and honest as I can be.” (what does that mean – you are either honest or you’re not, there’s no middle ground), “committed”, “honestly” and “truthfully” coupled with the bafflegab about considering options for office space, prompted me to go back over the information I thought I had previously read.
    Maybe it’s just my interpretation of the open, honest and truthful accounts documented by the Elgin St. Thomas Public Health (ESTPH) but something doesn’t quite add up.

    A NEW BUILDING

    COMMENCING October 2009, board approval of a new building was unanimously granted, the size of the building defined, the name of consultant identified and architectural drawings created.
    What other options for space were being considered? Nothing is indicated in the minutes published on the ESTPH website.

    MINUTES October 7th, 2009
    Resolution #13 Moved by B. Aarts Seconded by M. Champion
    That the Board approves the following recommendations as reported in the closed session:
    THAT the Board of Health approve the square footage for the new building to be approximately 25,000 square feet plus an additional 5,000 square feet in the basement.
    Recorded Vote Carried.
    Bill Aarts yes
    Marla Champion yes
    Gord Campbell yes
    Tom Johnston yes
    Bonnie Vowel yes
    John Wilson yes

    Resolution #14 Moved by B. Aarts Seconded by G. Campbell
    That the Board approves the following recommendations as reported in the closed session:
    THAT the Board of Health agree to a 20 year lease for the new building based upon a 30 year lease rate with exercising the additional two five year options.
    Recorded Vote Carried.
    Bill Aarts yes
    Marla Champion yes
    Gord Campbell yes
    Tom Johnston yes
    Bonnie Vowel yes
    John Wilson yes

    Resolution #15 Moved by T. Johnston Seconded by B. Aarts
    That the Board approves the following recommendations as reported in the closed session:
    THAT the Board of Health authorize the Chair of the Board and the Executive Director to sign the “offer to lease” for a 30 year commitment with the developer with the understanding that an independent architect review the relevant schedules and drawings prior to the signing of the actual lease and subject to legal counsel’s advice regarding said signing.
    Recorded Vote Carried.
    Bill Aarts yes
    Marla Champion yes
    Gord Campbell yes
    Tom Johnston yes
    Bonnie Vowel yes
    John Wilson yes

    MINUTES November 4th, 2009
    Resolution #11 Moved by T. Johnston Seconded by M. Champion
    That the Board approves the following recommendations as reported in the closed session:
    THAT the Board of Health for Elgin St. Thomas Health Unit approve the square footage of the new office building in the amount of approximately 30,000 square feet in total with 27,0000 square feet being finished upon building completion and 3,000 square feet being built but left unfinished for future use as outlined in the architectural drawings completed.
    Recorded Vote Carried.
    Bill Aarts yes
    Gord Campbell yes
    Marla Champion yes
    Tom Johnston yes
    Jim McIntyre no
    Bonnie Vowel yes
    John Wilson yes

    THEN in December 2009, things changed – perhaps this is where religion sprouted about fiscal responsibility. The approval for a new 30,000 square foot building with a 30 year lease was rescinded. Was this what St. John meant by “the board has decided it needs more information in order to be able to make a long-term decision for public health.”?

    MINUTES December 2nd, 2009
    Resolution #16 Moved by G. Campbell Seconded by B. Aarts
    That the Board approves the following recommendations as reported in the closed session:
    • that the Board of Health rescind the following motion of October 7, 2009:
    “That the Board of Health approve the square footage for the new building to be approximately 25,000 square feet plus an additional 5,000 square feet in the basement”.
    Carried.

    COMPENSATION

    FROM this same meeting we learn of the care for taxpayers’ dollars;

    Resolution #21 Moved by B. Aarts Seconded by T. Johnston
    That the Board approves the following recommendations as reported in the closed session:
    That the Board of Health authorize 2009 surplus dollars to purchase office furniture and payment of compensating time and vacation time as funds and operational needs dictate.
    Carried.

    QUESTION:
    DOES that mean the “surplus” dollars in 2009 from this non-profit organization were used to bloat the salaries of the CEO and others at year end rather than be carried forward into the 2010 Budget to reduce the burden on taxpayers?

    It’s also interesting to note that ESTPH has stopped publishing the agendas and minutes on their website for 2010 (no longer open and transparent?) except for the agenda of the January 6th, 2010 meeting which is duplicated as the minutes for the same meeting.

    Bill

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