Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

A Foote in the door at The Rooms, and a portrait of patronage on its walls

Qualifications? Connections? In the Carla Foote hiring, there are many questions yet to be answered, writes Anthony Germain

Qualifications? Connections? Many questions about Carla Foote's hiring remain unanswered

The Rooms houses Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial art gallery, museum and archives. (CBC)

In defending his decision to award a senior job at The Rooms to a well-connected Liberal, Christopher Mitchelmore — the minister responsible for culture in Newfoundland and Labrador — offered a concise explanation. 

"I had made the determination," he said, "that Carla Foote was deemed the most qualified person to fill that role."

The position of executive director of marketing comes with an annual salary of $132,000.

Mitchelmore dispatched his edict to the CEO of The Rooms — the complex that houses the provincial museum, archive and art gallery — and its board of directors. 

"My signature would be on the staffing request, requesting Carla Foote to be hired," Michelmore said. [There is a ring of "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse" underlying the minister's statements.] 

Imagine this from the point of view of The Rooms' authorities: The cabinet minister who allocates more than $6 million to your institution tells you, I want this person hired.

No competition, and no comment, either

Should it be surprising that neither CEO Dean Brinton nor any member of the board of directors has come forward to question why there was no job competition for the new executive director of marketing? 

In this job's previous incarnation — when it was posted in 2016, and the salary peak was $27,000 less — more than 70 people applied. A short list of skilled final candidates for the job was created. 

Christopher Mitchelmore, whose cabinet responsibilities include culture, has had little to say about why Carla Foote was hired at The Rooms. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

What happened next — that is, how and why the job was eliminated and redesigned — remains a mystery.

There are a number of other important questions that will remain unanswered because Mitchelmore has imposed a gag  order on The Rooms that forbids employees from answering questions about this hiring decision. 

These questions include: 

  • Did anybody at The Rooms get so much as a glimpse of Ms. Foote's resumé?
  • Why, as Mitchelmore asserts, was it suddenly urgent to fill a position that had been vacant for two years?
  • As this position was reformulated, why was the upper range of the salary increased from $105,000 to $132,000?
  • And, if the hiring is legit, why the gag order?

A devout Liberal who played a key strategic role​

Foote was Dwight Ball's right-hand person when he was leader of the Opposition, and she worked hard to get him elected premier in 2015's election. She is a devout Liberal. 

The party's DNA is in Foote's political blood. She is the daughter of former federal Liberal cabinet minister Judy Foote, who was given the exalted position as this province's lieutenant-governor by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

Carla Foote, seen in the Liberal offices in 2013, played a key role in helping Dwight Ball take the party from opposition to government two years later. (CBC)

In explaining Foote the Younger's qualifications, officials in Mitchelmore's department told reporters  she has held marketing roles with the Association for New Canadians and the Canadian College of Natural Medicine. 

And, in a written statement: "As part of The Way Forward, she led the consolidation of marketing functions across government … resulting in increased efficiencies, effectiveness and success of government marketing activities."

Is the landing pad at the second-highest paying job at The Rooms a recognition of her marketing and communications skills or a reward for spreading the wisdom of the Liberals' The Way Forward? 

The initial job posting in 2016 indicated that a university degree (either a BA or MA in commerce or marketing) would be an asset. 

According to Foote's LinkedIn account, she does not hold a degree but has been working on completing a BA in political science at Memorial University.

Degrees common at comparable institutions

Phone calls to comparable major museums in Halifax, Charlottetown and Saint John, N.B., reveal that Foote's counterparts in those locations all have at least one university degree in commerce, communications or tourism. 

A degree is by no means a guarantee of competence, but a legitimate question remains: What relevant experience for work at The Rooms does Foote possess to justify waiving the educational hiring criteria that The Rooms had insisted upon two years ago?

The Rooms CEO Dean Brinton, seen during a 2015 interview, was instructed to hire Foote — and to not speak about the hire. (CBC)

According to Memorial University political science professor Kelly Blidook, in the absence of a fair competition for the job to weigh credentials and experience, Foote's hiring reeks of favouritism. 

"If she's the best person for the job, none of this embarrassment is necessary because she'd have been hired through a competitive process for it," he told me.

"If anything, all this does is suggest she's not the best person." 

Why the rush?

There's another unanswered question: why now?

Well-placed sources who wish to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak on the matter (and who fear losing their jobs) have told CBC News it's not even clear that Foote wanted the job. 

If Ms. Foote is indeed the best person, what the minister did here simply diminishes any reason to believe that is true, and it is a disservice to her.- Kelly Blidook

They contend she was pushed out of the executive council as part of a backroom personnel reorganization in advance of next year's election. 

Might there be political reasons for this career move? Add that subject to the unanswered question list.   

Whatever the political machinations, there is no arguing that the controversy has put a heavy whiff of old-fashioned party patronage in the air. Blidook said the heavy-handed process the government has used in this instance harms Foote's credibility. 

"If Ms. Foote is indeed the best person, what the minister did here simply diminishes any reason to believe that is true, and it is a disservice to her." 

Political scientist Kelly Blidook has not been impressed with the explanations over how Foote was hired. (CBC)

Both Ball and Mitchelmore argue that this is merely a "lateral" move of a person who is qualified (because they say she is) into a position in a "similar salary band." That band was increased by more than $25,000, which just happens to keep the new job's salary in range of Foote's previous earnings. 

Blidook rejects the "lateral move" rationale.   

"The hiring doesn't fit at all with the convention that Crown corporations operate at arm's length from government," he said. "There is no arm's length here. Mitchelmore refers to the move as a 'lateral' one. Sure, the salary and the rank are comparable, but a lateral move would be one within government. The Rooms is not government."

The Foote job transfer does fall within Mitchelmore's ministerial powers, but it collides with the spirt of how Dwight Ball said the Liberals would approach government hires when he was running for election. 

The Liberals, to their credit, did bring in a commission to examine appointments that are a notch higher than that of executive directors. 

Qualifications and connections?

As it turns out, the second-highest paying job at The Rooms is exempt from these considerations. 

Blidook says the onus is on the government to demonstrate the hiring was fair, and adds neither the premier nor the minister deserve the benefit of the doubt. 

Premier Dwight Ball relied on Foote for strategic oversight of the Liberals' Way Forward strategy. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"Honestly, if it looks like cronyism and there isn't a logical explanation for why it isn't cronyism, then it should be treated as cronyism," he said. "We don't owe the minister or the premier the favour of assuming things were done properly — they owe us the favour of doing things properly."

Carla Foote may well be qualified to be the executive director of marketing at The Rooms. 

Being a Liberal who happens to be the daughter of a Liberal lieutenant-govenor should not preclude a person from advancing her career. All the more reason for competition and transparency. 

A proper hiring process would have eliminated the most damning, unanswered question of them all: did Carla Foote earn her job at The Rooms because of her qualifications or because of her connections? 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Anthony Germain hosts Here & Now in Newfoundland and Labrador. He is a former host of the St. John's Morning Show and CBC Radio's The House, and is CBC's former correspondent in China.