Chris Eagle, Fred Horne, Janet Davidson

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne began the day yesterday explaining why he may not be able to prevent Alberta Health Services’ 99 top managers from getting their controversial bonuses — you know, the ones he fired the 10 members of the AHS board over on Wednesday.

Of course, this just encourages tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who have decided it’s highly unlikely Horne canned the board of the giant public health care agency over something that popped onto his radar screen this week, as was suggested to the public, or that he just happened to have a $580,000-a-year “Official Administrator” waiting in the wings to take over on one day’s notice.

But who would have thought the new administrator in question would be planning to do at least some of her job from her new home on Vancouver Island?

Denying the notorious 99 their $3.2 million in bonuses was turning out to be “a bit of a legal mess at the moment,” Horne elucidated in the morning news reports, saying it was because the board had defied his orders and approved the payments while it still had the legal power to do so.

He picked up on this theme again at a press conference, which was called yesterday afternoon at an Edmonton hospital to introduce Janet Davidson, the one-woman board equivalent with whom he has replaced the rebellious directors, stating: “It’s a very complicated issue.”
Actually, if you’ll pardon a blogger for saying so, it’s not really all that complicated. Whether they ought to have done so or not, the board, which was appointed by Horne, agreed to pay the execs, and now AHS has the legal obligation to do so.

It’s sort of like when I use my credit card to buy something. I’m agreeing to pay for it and sooner or later I’m going to have to fork over the dough.

So, really, it’s pretty simple. They’re going to have to pay the 99 execs, just like they’re eventually going to have to pay severance to Alauddin Merali, the former AHS chief financial officer who was fired last year over the expense account claims he filed back when he played the same role at Capital Health, all of which were approved by his bosses there.

Back at the news conference, meanwhile, it was apparent something’s going on, because Alberta’s usually tame media were feistier than normal today, if not exactly ferocious.

They brought up the business about Davidson’s recent purchase of a house on Vancouver Island — community unnamed — although nobody asked if she’s going to make like a Senator from the island on the other side of the country and hold another province’s health-care card and driver’s license while she runs Alberta’s health system for us poor schmucks who have to live here through the winter.

According to Davidson, as far as her previous employer, KPMG, was concerned, she could live wherever she wanted as long as it had an Internet connection and a good airport. Presumably the same deal now applies to the top jobs in AHS.

It’s not 100 per cent clear what Davidson will be doing, other than “advising” Dr. Chris Eagle, AHS’s remarkably mild-mannered CEO, on how to do his job. Eagle was also at the news conference showing occasional signs of animation.

Despite their uncharacteristic vigour at the newser, journalists mostly dutifully picked up the claim in Horne’s press release that Davidson’s annual salary is roughly $100,000 less than the board was paid in honoraria in the last fiscal year.

Most, however, did not mention NDP Leader Brian Mason’s observation that since both Davidson and Eagle, who is also paid $580,000 … plus bonuses … now seem to be doing the same job, that’s not really much of a saving.

Reporters at the newser also pressed Horne and Davidson pretty hard about just when the new Official Administrator was first asked to consider the job. “It was late Tuesday,” she said of her formal offer, although readers will just have to forgive many Albertans who are paying attention for suspecting there’s a bit more to this story than that.

As Wildrose Seniors Critic Kerry Towle wondered: “She’s clearly a high calibre person, sought after by so many people, and yet she is available to come to Alberta on a whim? I highly doubt that!

The journalists were also cranky about how a five-month-old report critical of the board just happened to surface on the government’s website last week. “We didn’t keep it from the public,” Mr. Horne insisted. “The intent was always to make it public. … The intent was never to withhold it.” You know…

Horne was very determined — sort of — to squelch suggestions, including some in this blog, that he and Davidson are now going to re-reorganize Alberta Health Services back into multiple heath regions.

“This is not an excuse for rethinking health care from Ground Zero,” Horne stated unequivocally early in the news conference. Later, though, on the same topic, he said: “We’ll look at all the options.”

In other words, stay tuned….

Premier Alison Redford, meanwhile, was also in British Columbia yesterday, thawing out her once-frosty relationship with B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

Ms. Clark took a break from door knocking in Kelowna, where she is trying to win back a seat in the B.C. Legislature, to take a friendly stroll with her Alberta counterpart.

“Kelowna is essentially an Alberta outpost,” Redford spokesthingy Stefan Baranski Tweeted from the Okanagan city the night before. “Every person I’ve met tonight lives in our great province. My Alberta includes Kelowna.”

Nice to know the pipeline, as it were, runs both ways.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...