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Morinville sacks CAO

Morinville town council has fired its CAO, Debbie Oyarzun. It's the third CAO they've fired since 2009.
DEBBIE OYARZUN — Former Morinville CAO
DEBBIE OYARZUN — Former Morinville CAO

By Kevin Ma

Morinville town council has sacked its third CAO in seven years.

In a surprise move, town council voted 6-0 last Jan. 26 to fire chief administrative officer Debbie Oyarzun after a 15-minute in-camera meeting. Coun. Nicole Boutestein was absent.

Oyarzun has been the town's CAO since February 2012. She had served as interim CAO for eight months before that after council sacked her predecessor, Edie Doepker.

Doepker, in turn, had been hired to replace Milad Asdaghi, who had been fired in June 2009. Asdaghi had replaced long-time town employee Cathy Clarke, who quit suddenly in 2006.

In an interview, Mayor Lisa Holmes declined to discuss the reasons Oyarzun's dismissal, citing advice from the town's lawyers.

"We felt there needed to be a change in leadership."

Council held a special meeting on Jan. 22 with Oyarzun during which they voted to place her on a paid leave of absence, Holmes said. They also appointed Andy Isbister, the town's chief financial officer, as interim CAO.

Council clashed with Oyarzun last year over a proposed $92,765 professional services assistant position attached to her office, arguing that it was unnecessary and ultimately cutting it from this year's budget.

Holmes would not say if that dispute had anything to do with Oyarzun's dismissal, but said there was not any one specific item behind their decision.

"Morinville is a community that's changing. We're growing quickly. We're becoming a small city. We need to start acknowledging that in the decisions we make and the leadership we have."

Oyarzun will be paid severance in accordance with her employment agreement, Holmes said. She did not release the amount of this payment.

What now?

Oyarzun was regularly praised by members of this and the previous council for being an extremely hard worker, and was known for answering their questions at all hours of the day.

But the town's recent organizational effectiveness and efficiency review also found that this "hands on" approach was "not sustainable" due to the workload it involved, and that it was keeping Oyarzun from acting on long-term strategic projects. (The professional services position was pitched as a way to help her work on such projects.)

The review also found that council needed to "enhance the relationship it has with its CAO" and create a process to monitor said relationship.

Oyarzun came into this job during a tumultuous time on council, Holmes said, referring to Doepker's dismissal, and was very dedicated to her role.

"We have nothing but good things (to say) for her."

Her dismissal was unexpected, but Oyarzun was "very professional" about it, Holmes said.

Reached at her home in Edmonton by email, Oyarzun said her five years with the Town of Morinville were an adventure from Day 1, one that saw her work with two councils, four mayors, and many staffers.

"Morinville is a great community with a bright future," she said, one that had grown by about 1,000 residents during her time on the job.

"The time I have spent will not be forgotten."

Oyarzun said council's decision to change direction and administrative leadership was one only they could make.

"For me, the change will only be where I get my paycheque."

Oyarzun said she planned to spend time with her family for the near future, and that she would continue to be an active community member in Morinville.

Oyarzun leaves behind a long list of unfinished projects, including a multimillion-dollar multi-use rec-centre and the town's capital budget.

Council has every confidence in Isbister's ability to pick up the ball on these matters, Holmes said.

Holmes said council had yet to discuss hiring a permanent replacement for Oyarzun, and suspected that it would not do so in the near future. Instead, they would focus on their goals for the rest of their term in office.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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