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CAO moves create a “Now-toxic environment” – Former Mayor Bob Bentley

By Mike Williscraft

The fallout and reaction from another four staff members being dismissed from the Town of Grimsby last week was magnified by a disturbing pattern which goes back to early 2020, says Grimsby’s former mayor.

The Town’s former CAO Derik Brandt and director of planning Michael Seaman were similar in thinking to former mayor Bob Bentley, who noted his comments were “just my opinion after working in that environment with many of these same employees for 24 years.”

“It is unbelievable how disconnected this group (on council) is from reality and the efforts of people that made Grimsby such a desirable place to work,” said Bentley.

“Their hard work and dedication to the town has made Grimsby the once proud place it used to be and disregarding that employee commitment while backing someone with a Trump-like track record for removing anyone who dared challenge him is shameful and disgusting.”

Grimsby CAO Harry Schlange, who was hired in Fall 2019, has terminated many staff members and filled vacancies with people who have worked with him during his stints in Fort Erie, Niagara Region and Brampton.

“I would expect other dedicated staff to be leaving this now-toxic environment soon as well, which would be very disappointing,” added Bentley.

“This was not about employee performance at all as our staff were exceptional.”

This was a point confirmed by former CAO Brandt who was dismissed from the Town in early 2019.

Brandt said Schlange’s clearing out of the entire three-member finance department at town hall is a loss of quality employees and a great deal of knowledge important to continuity with town functions.

“I don’t know the organizational changes the Town has in mind, and I wish them luck, but I do know that when I was there having these three on the team made a huge, positive difference,” said Brandt.

Former director of planning Michael Seaman, who left the Town for another position in early 2019, said the two more senior finance department staffers – director of finance Steven Gruninger and manager of accounting Noreen Broome were leaders at town hall.

“Steven and Norene were two of the most dedicated municipal employees I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked all over the Golden Horseshoe,” said Seaman.

“They are truly good people and I along with those who know them feel very upset about how they have been treated.”

Since Schlange was hired, the entire landscape of staffing at town hall has changed drastically.

In the last 18 months, many senior staff have either been terminated or left the Town’s employ, including Fire Chief Mike Cain, fired; director of public works Bob LeRoux took a package to retire; human resources director Kat Bohar who quit last month, and; operations manager Richard Sparham, who was terminated by Schlange last Wednesday, one day after the finance department was cleared out.

While other staff have been terminated by Schlange since he took control at town hall, many women have quit during his brief tenure.

Three women from the planning department, two from the clerk’s office and another who worked as a cashier in the finance department all have departed.

In the three years previous to Schlange’s arrival, no women from town hall left the Town of Grimsby and only one male left who accepted a management position elsewhere in Niagara.

Seaman said Grimsby was a very desirable place for anyone to work and, because of that, they were willing to make concessions on pay just to get a job.

“Prior to the present term, people stayed at Grimsby because they were treated with respect and kindness. People stayed, even for far less compensation than they could receive elsewhere because the staff environment was so positive,” said Seaman.

“It really showed through in times when one of our staff might have experienced significant hardship, loss or illness. Everyone pitched in in every way they could – cooking meals or raising money for the family experiencing duress for example. Noreen and Stephen often took the lead in that kind of initiative.”

Aside from expertise, history and knowledge of the community, Seaman said the town lost a great deal last week.

“Their dedication to the team and to the community of Grimsby was second to none. It really saddens me to see what has happened, and realize how the corporate knowledge base of decades and positive work culture appears to have been lost.”

Bentley, who also witnessed Schlange’s business practices at Niagara Region, said the CAO’s pattern of management is unmistakable – and not in a good way.

“That pattern has shown itself previously at the Region,” noted Bentley.

“Unfortunately council members cannot be recalled for block voting – 5-4 – and releasing the CAO prior to his contract ending would add an additional large severance to an already strained municipal budget.”

As to any solution to the ongoing issues, Bentley was left scratching his head.

“(It’s) Very disappointing indeed and I have had hundreds of people stop me around town asking what the heck is going on at Town Hall. I don’t have an answer that can be printed but hopefully the next ballot box will correct this mess,” said Bentley, adding what has transpired with the Town “deeply concerns me and is going to have a major negative effect on Grimsby for years to come.”

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