JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
NIAGARA – The public still has no idea how much severance the former head of the Niagara Health System is entitled to receive almost two years after she was fired.
And with Debbie Sevenpifer fighting the release of her employment contract – which Bullet News has been seeking to obtain through Ontario’s freedom of information legislation for nearly a year – taxpayers will be left in the dark even longer.
“She objects to the release (of her contract),” NHS supervisor Kevin Smith told Bullet News during an interview.
“We basically said we don’t have any objection. Mrs. Sevenpifer’s (legal) counsel disagrees.”
But while on one hand Smith says the NHS does not have any objection to releasing Sevenpifer’s contract, the organization is also party to making sure the document stays secret, despite having already made public the contracts of all other senior executives.
Sevenpifer served as president and chief executive officer of the NHS from 2003 until January 2011.
The reason for her termination has never been fully explained, other than it was said at the time the NHS board had decided to take a different strategic direction.
Smith, who was appointed supervisor in August of that same year by Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews to restore public confidence in hospital system accused of lacking transparency in decision making, says he can’t say much about the dispute between Sevenpifer and the NHS over severance other than it has yet to be resolved.
Given that it hasn’t been settled, Smith said he’s not prepared to make Sevenpifer’s employment contract public.
“We have not settled our relationship with her.”
The NHS has previously indicated it was involved in a lawsuit with the one-time CEO, and used that as a reason for keeping the employment contract a secret. It now says that is not the case.
“At this point, there’s not a lawsuit per se,” Smith said Monday. “We’re hoping to get a mediated settlement.”
Smith said the NHS is awaiting dates for mediation discussions, which could be followed by arbitration if the parties fail to reach an agreement satisfactory to both sides.
Sevenpifer, a chartered accountant, is currently employed as the chief financial officer for the YMCA of Greater Toronto.
Sevenpifer has not responded to any requests for interviews since her departure and did not return phone calls placed to her home and office this week.
In January, when hospitals for the first time ever came under the provisions of Ontario’s freedom of information laws, Bullet News filed a request seeking details of the contracts of Sevenpifer and several other NHS senior managers who have left or were fired since 2008.
NHS provided some information with respect to the contracts of two individuals, but rejected the request for information about the contracts of Sevenpifer and former NHS chief of medical staff Dr. William (Bill) Shragge.
Bullet News then appealed the decision to office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.
Shragge left the health system in early 2009. He passed away last spring following a lengthy illness.
After his death, the NHS dropped its objections to the release of Shragge’s contract. (Shragge’s widow did not object to the release of his contract).
That document has since been provided to Bullet News.
The first step in an appeal of a decision under provincial freedom of information is mediation. Through much of that process, which lasted through the spring and summer of this year, the NHS continued to maintain its position that it should not be required to release Sevenpifer’s contract.
The original argument employed by the NHS was that it is not obligated to release the contract since the document was drafted in 2003 and freedom of information laws do not require hospitals to publicly disclose documents “that came into its custody or control” prior to 2007.
Later during mediation, the NHS seemed to drop that argument, agreeing to provide Bullet News with a copy of the contract – but only after the dispute with Sevenpifer has been resolved.
Throughout mediation, Bullet News continued to argue its position that the contract is a public document, taxpayers have a right to know what severance provisions are contained in her contract and that the exemptions to release cited by the NHS do not apply in this case.
Then, in October, it appeared as though the NHS was prepared to drop all of its objections to the release of the document. The hospital sent what’s known as an “Affected Third Party Notice” to Sevenpifer informing her of the decision.
After reviewing Sevenpifer’s response, the NHS chose instead to continue to fight the appeal rather than hand over the contract.
Without a resolution, the matter has been turned over to an adjudicator from the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s office to decide.
The adjudicator has given the NHS until Dec. 27 to provide written arguments, as well as any other documents and evidence, to support its position in the appeal launched by Bullet News.
Smith said Tuesday he’s not prepared to voluntarily release Sevenpifer’s contract at this time as the NHS wishes to avoid doing anything “which may jeopardize the position of the hospital in negotiations” with Sevenpifer.
“We wouldn’t want to be seen to be acting in bad faith,” Smith said.
Executive compensation and severance payouts to public officials have been a hot button political issues at Queen’s Park for several years, with demands from opposition parties to have greater transparency in public spending across the broader public sector.
As has been the case with many other ousted hospital CEOs in recent years, questions were raised almost immediately following Sevenpifer’s termination about how much the NHS would be required to pay her.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who campaigned during the last election on a platform that called for a $418,000 cap on public-sector CEO salaries, has repeatedly raised questions about Sevenpifer’s severance package.
“How many hundreds of thousands of dollars will Niagara families be on the hook for in this latest sweetheart severance deal?” Horwath asked Liberal Health Minister Deb Matthews in the Legislature in March 2011.
In 2010, Sevenpifer earned $351,000, according to the public filings under the provisions of the Ontario Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act.
Sevenpifer was paid $618,300 in 2011, even though she worked only a portion of the month of January before her departure. It’s assumed some or all of the money is severance, but NHS officials, citing confidentiality rules, have never specifically clarified the payment. What’s also unclear is exactly what outstanding issues of contention between Sevenpifer and the NHS have yet to be settled, such as whether Sevenpifer is claiming she was terminated without cause.
When the so-called Sunshine List of $100,000 earners was published in late March of this year, Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster called the $618,000 payment from the NHS to Sevenpifer outrageous.
“The residents of Niagara Region should be outraged,” Forster said.
The decision to block public scrutiny of Sevenpifer’s employment contract runs contrary to a new era of openess and transparency at the NHS, which, since Smith’s arrival as hospital supervisor in August 2011, has sought to improve its relationship with the community and the local media.
It’s also at odds with the actions taken by hospitals across Ontario, including the NHS, to proactively disclose executive contracts.
The contracts of hundreds of hospital CEOs and senior managers have since January been available online, including Smith’s contract as president and CEO of St. Joseph’s Health Care in Hamilton.
Posted on the NHS website are details about the employment contract of Sevenpifer’s successor, acting president and CEO Sue Matthews, as well as the contracts of the following executives: Linda Boich, vice-president of patient services & strategy; Dr. Joanna Hope, interim chief of medical staff; Gloria Kain, chief planning and development officer; Terry McMahon, vice-president of human resources; Kim Stephens-Woods, vice-president of patient services; and Angela Zangari, chief financial officer.
The NHS did not object to the release of details of contracts of former NHS managers Christine Clark and Frank Demizio, both of whom left the employment of the NHS during the summer of 2011, when Bullet News sought that information by way of the same freedom of information request in January.