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Mystery surrounds ex-New Westminster fire chief’s final paycheques

Citing privacy concerns, city won’t disclose details of payments before and after official’s retirement in October
The City of New Westminster is staying mum about payments made to former fire chief Tim Armstrong before and after his Oct. 28, 2021, retirement | Submitted

New Westminster city hall is refusing to say how much it paid the fire chief before and after his sudden, pre-Halloween retirement.

Tim Armstrong spent 12 years of his 40-year career in public safety as chief of New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services, until three days before one of the busiest occasions of the year. A January request under the freedom of information law for a list of all individual payments made to Armstrong from Oct. 1 onwards was rejected by the city hall FOI office.

City of New Westminster FOI and privacy coordinator Brooke Holtz replied March 4 that “the records have been withheld in their entirety,” for fear that disclosure would harm personal privacy.

Holtz refused to reconsider the decision and told a reporter to complain to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC). The law is intended to protect the public’s right to know who is paid how much, and adjudicators with the OIPC have consistently ruled in favour of requiring public bodies to disclose their spending on staff and contractors.

Chief administrative officer Lisa Spitale informed staff in an Oct. 22 memo that Armstrong had chosen to retire effective Oct. 28. She wrote that Armstrong had “brought forward many improvements” to the fire department during his time in the job.

“Kindly join me in wishing Tim Armstrong good wishes in his retirement,” Spitale wrote.

On Oct. 28, Armstrong sent a memo to staff that said he decided to retire “after some much needed holiday time and reflecting on what the next chapter in life might look like.”

For 2020, the most-recent year available, City of New Westminster paid Armstrong $194,802. He billed $3,827 in expenses.

Neither Spitale nor Mayor Jonathan Cote responded for comment on March 7.

There was no official public announcement of Armstrong’s departure, including on the city’s social media channels. There also did not appear to be any mention of Armstrong at the Nov. 1 city council budget workshop meeting where Curtis Bremner was introduced as interim fire chief without fanfare.

Bremner later retired and Erin Williams became the new acting chief. The job vacancy has yet to be posted.

“Given the ongoing pandemic and recent retirement of the former fire chief, this is an opportune time for the city to review the fire department’s organizational structure,” said New Westminster human resources director Richard Fong. “When this review is completed, the city will post the position and commence the recruitment process for a new fire chief.”

As for not publicly recognizing Armstrong when he departed, Fong said that is not normal city practice.

“Any details about retirements are personal information and the city does not discuss personnel issues publicly,” Fong said.

In early January 2011, the New Westminster Police Department announced on its website that chief Lorne Zapotichny would retire at the end of February 2011.

Cote, coincidentally, announced on Jan. 1 that he would retire from the mayoralty at the end of his term in the fall. 

In early 2020, the Justice Institute of B.C. awarded Armstrong an honorary doctor of laws degree. Armstrong joined Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services at age 21 and rose the ranks over 28 years to become deputy chief. He became New Westminster’s fire chief in 2009 and also served as the Royal City’s director of emergency management. His career also included training firefighters in Canada, U.S. and Taiwan.

Coincidentally, the chief of a fire department in a suburb of Denver, Colo., with a career trajectory akin to Armstrong, announced his retirement on Jan. 10

Chief Doug Hall said his 43 years in firefighting, including 10 years as chief of the Westminster Fire Department, will end July 3.