County council shows support for Grey Bruce top doc amid salary controversy

·6 min read

Following the publication of the provincial Sunshine List, Dr. Ian Arra, medical officer of health for Grey Bruce Health Unit (GBHU) has received some backlash from what some consider to be an unreasonably large salary increase.

In late March, the 2020 Public Sector Salary Disclosure – also known as the "Sunshine List", was published showing Arra as the region’s highest-paid public servant, as well as the top paid medical officer of health in Ontario.

In 2020, Arra earned $613,000, a nearly 60-per-cent increase over his base pay of $385,439 in 2019.

The dramatic increase in salary is, according to the region's board of health, compensation for the amount of overtime Arra undertook in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the salary quickly drew criticism from the public as it was the highest amount received by any other of Arra's counterparts in the province and $200,000 above the next highest-paid medical officer of health.

In addition, Arra’s 2020 salary far exceeded the salary of Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, who earned $336,104 in the same year.

Following the release of the Sunshine List, four councillors in Grey-Bruce – John Tamming from Owen Sound, Cathy Moore Coburn from the Georgian Bluffs and Arran-Elderslie councillors Ryan Greig and Melissa Kanmacher – signed and circulated a letter that questioned both Arra’s compensation and leadership.

The six-page letter addressed to the public health board outlined several concerns surrounding the salary and demanded Arra and the board provide an explanation to the salary increase and produce data in regards to the top doc’s overtime hours.

In addition to local concerns, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) also issued a statement urging Premier Ford to “rein-in out of control executive pay” at the GBHU.

"Ian Arra may be working hard during the pandemic, but this is a massive insult to all the front-line heroes working just as hard to get people through this pandemic," stated OPSEU/SEFPO president Warren Thomas, in a news release.

"While the boss can buy a house on a single year's salary, local hospitals and long-term care homes are losing workers due to a decade of below-inflation wage increases, and now can't find the workers they need,” he continued.

On March 29, Sue Paterson, chair of the board of health, alongside Arra provided a deputation to Owen Sound council to address the concerns noted in the letter.

“I understand that the recently published Sunshine List has raised questions,” said Paterson, who stated that from March to December last year Arra doubled his regular working hours as staff vacancies in the health unit have added to his workload.

“Throughout all of 2020 and to-date, we have not had an associate medical officer of health. There are certain legislative responsibilities and authority that can only be performed by a medical officer of health or a designated associate appointed by the Minister,” Paterson explained. “Each health unit must have a medical officer of health on call at all times, 24-hours a day. As such, there is no one for whom Dr. Arra could pass over the legislated responsibilities.”

Paterson added that the health unit has had a few associate medical officers of health in the past few years, however these individuals were not able or did not fulfill their on-call requirements and vacated the position.

She added that the health board is actively trying to address the situation and hired a new physician consultant in February of this year to assist with recruitment.

“In the final 10 months of 2020, [Dr. Arra] almost doubled his regular working hours. Dr. Arra receives the same overtime rate as would be available to any unionized staff putting in those kinds of overtime hours. These overtime rates for all union and non-union positions are eligible for the provisions under the provincial governments extraordinary funding related to COVID-19,” Paterson added.

It was also noted that comparison among the salaries of medical officers of health across Ontario are not always appropriate as each health unit is structured differently. In the example of Toronto’s Dr. de Villa, for example, de Villa has nine associates.

During Arra’s portion of the deputation, the top doc provided an overview of how the health unit has managed the pandemic, his role and responsibilities throughout 2020, as well as stating that if his motivations were to make an exorbitant amount of money, he would have gone into a different medical speciality.

“I would pay a million dollars to reverse 2020 and spend it with my family,” Arra said. “This is something that no one should have to stand in a council to talk about. People invest hours, they get paid.”

Arra added that he was disappointed with how the councillors chose to act individually and without the support of their fellow council members, adding that this is not the proper council and board process to handle these kinds of concerns.

“What is the goal? Whatever the purpose is, the result is weakening the response in Grey-Bruce and putting lives in danger. It is inappropriate behaviour on any given day of the week in a normal year. In a pandemic, it is reckless and dangerous and that is why I am here today,” Arra continued.

At the same council meeting, Ian Boddy mayor of Owen Sound, did not allow the letter that was written to the board of health and signed by one of his own councillors, to be read at the council meeting as “it does not relate to city business as council has no authority over the health unit’s budget or board.”

The conversation around Arra’s salary continued at a Grey County council meeting held earlier today when Boddy added that the letter sent to the board of health was not supported by the rest of the Owen Sound council.

“I think it's extremely important that we appreciate and state clearly that we appreciate everything that Dr. Arra has done for us,” Boddy continued.

Owen Sound councillor Richard Thomas was also present at the Grey County council meeting and echoed a similar message as the mayor.

“I will assure you that what you are hearing is a single individual's opinion in Owen Sound. A single individual who does not understand the role of a municipal councillor, and feels that a municipal councillor alone has more power than a group of visible councillors together. And that's just wrong,” Thomas said. “I regret that Dr. Arra has been the victim of the agenda of disruption.”

In an effort to show support to Arra, his staff and the health unit, Grey County council presented a motion that directed staff to pen a letter of support on behalf of the council to Arra and his team. The letter will also be circulated to all lower-tier municipalities.

“This situation has not been easy for anybody. Let alone the people that are at the very front of the fight,” said the Town of the Blue Mountains deputy mayor, Rob Potter.

“We know over here that if we go 10 or 15 minutes to the east, we're into a different health unit where the situation is much different and the only thing that's different is that jurisdictional line that we would be crossing. We're very thankful to the health unit and doctor and all the work they've done,” Potter continued.

In a recorded vote the motion passed unanimously by county councillors.

Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca