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Executive elitism carries a high price for St. Joe’s

Posted: January 14, 2021

January 13, 2021

By: Spectator Editorial, The Hamilton Spectator


Credibility in the eyes of the public is hard won and easily lost. Speaking from inside an industry that has taken its fair share of tarnish — for reasons fair and unfair — we know this to be true.

For public institutions, that cherished quality is even more important. Consider, for example, the cases of St. Joseph’s Health Care and the Halton police service.

Hamiltonians think of St. Joe’s in a local context, but it is also a massive health system that includes hospitals, long-term-care homes and home care in other centres including Niagara, Kitchener, Guelph and Brantford. This week St. Joe’s “parted ways on a without-cause basis” with Dr. Tom Stewart, the CEO who spent the weeks of Dec. 18 to Jan. 5 at his private residence in Dominican Republic. Stewart was also CEO of Niagara Health, which announced his departure earlier.

Stewart may have been a brilliant CEO, but he made a shockingly bad and elitist decision by travelling internationally while Canadians are being urged to avoid all travel as the pandemic gets worse by the day. Like the politicians across Canada caught in the same misdeed, like the London, Ont., hospital CEO, he joined the ranks of those who have lost all credibility by living a double standard from other Canadians.

In Stewart’s case, his actions were especially egregious as he sat at provincial tables among health leaders making decisions on the best way to manage Ontario through the pandemic. That hypocrisy made the situation at St. Joe’s and Niagara untenable, and the two systems really had no choice but to jettison the credibility-killing executive.

And just to rub salt in the wound, The Spec reported this week that Stewart’s contract entitles him to something like $1.1 million as a farewell payout. That raised the ire of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and the Ontario Health Coalition, whose executive director called it a “slap in the face.”

Indeed. But that does not mean St. Joe’s had any choice. His vacation time was approved, he met the terms of his contract, if not the ethical standards of his public service. The organization could probably had fought the payout, but there’s every chance it would have lost and incurred even more public costs.

Stewart isn’t the only one with shredded credibility. We do not know, and we should, whether his vacation was approved with the knowledge that he planned to travel internationally. St. Joe’s governance should be transparent and say if that was the case, because if it was, it will come out sooner or later. Also, what are the odds that a person who leads a huge organization, in the midst of the worst public health crisis in modern times, is staying in another country for three weeks and no one in the organization is aware of it? Slim to none, we would argue. This story won’t go away until all the relevant questions are answered.

Then there is the case of Halton Police Chief Steve Tanner, who recently returned from staying at his property in Florida. His trip, not just the time off, was apparently approved by police board chair and Oakville Mayor Rob Burton, who initially said he had no problem with Tanner’s travel. Tanner’s officers, however, do apparently have a big problem with the flagrant double standard.

The police board meets this week to discuss the matter. Our bet, for what it is worth, is that things won’t go well for Tanner, especially considering that Burton has now resigned as board chair and apologized for his initial response.

Double standards, elitism and executive entitlement are not features that instil trust and credibility. The organizations and individuals involved in these cases are learning that the hard way.

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