Alberta Politics

Another director departs the Public Affairs Bureau

Reliable sources have informed this blogger that Tracy Balash has left her position as the acting managing director of the Public Affairs Bureau, the Government of Alberta’s communications-wing.

Sources says that Ms. Balash will be joining the Department of Aboriginal Relations next week to fill a joint position with Alberta Human Services. In this new job, she is expected to play a leading role in the provincial government’s effort to enhance economic security for Aboriginal women.

Eight months ago, Ms. Balash, then the Executive Director of Communications Planning, stepped in as acting managing director to replace departing director Lee Funke. Ms. Balash had only recently joined the PAB after working in Premier Alison Redford‘s Communications Office. The PAB has been in a period of transition over the past year following a series of high-level retirements and a reorganization that saw ministerial press secretaries removed from its apparatus.

Ms. Balash’s successor has not been announced.

Alberta Politics

Public Affairs Bureau boss Lee Funke resigns.

Lee Funke, Managing Director of Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau, announced his resignation in an email to government staff today. Mr. Funke had served as Managing Director of the government’s communications branch since March 2010.

Tracy Balash, Executive Director of Communications Planning, has been asked to step in as acting Managing Director. Ms. Balash recently joined the PAB after working in Premier Alison Redford‘s Communications Office.

The PAB was already in a period of transition after the retirement of Kathy Lazowski, its executive director of strategic communications.

Here is the text of the email he sent this morning:

Good morning team,

Two weeks ago I went to Peter Watson and informed him of my decision to return to private consulting once my contract as Managing Director of the Public Affairs Bureau ended. Peter has graciously allowed me to take some personal time before my contract concludes March 31, so my last day as Managing Director is tomorrow.

Reaching my decision was difficult, I am so very proud to lead this organization. Events like the recent Alberta Economic Summit held in Calgary demonstrate the important role we play in communicating significant policy issues with Albertans. The professionalism of our team was evident the entire day and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I see that same dedication by each employee of the PAB everyday – whether it is managing a special event to announce a new program, developing a multi-media promotion campaign, designing a public consultation strategy, launching an information website, writing a speech, or responding to a media call.

The PAB has one of the most exciting and challenging functions in the Government of Alberta.

We are on the front line communicating the policy, program and organizational changes that are a daily reality in a large complex organization. And there has been much change over the last three years that I have been Managing Director. The increasing demands of a 24/7 news cycle, the advent of social media, and emergence of new political voices have meant the adoption of new tools and techniques to communicate our policy agenda with Albertans.

Of course, the election of Premier Redford as the new leader for our government also brought change. Many of us have new Ministers, DMs, and in some cases new departments. But we have also seen the addition of new policy and decision–making processes, as well as new co-workers in the form of Press Secretaries. I admire how our organization has responded by adapting and implementing the changes needed to support Premier Redford’s focused agenda.

While the past three years have been rewarding, it is now time to switch my time and energy back to my government relations and communications consulting business which has been on hold.

I will continue to be involved in public policy discussions (it is part of my DNA) and our paths are likely to cross again in the near future. I will also be spending some time with my ever patient family. I know my wife, [name removed by this blogger], is certainly looking forward to me assuming more of the responsibilities for raising our two sons.

I have asked Tracy Balash, Executive Director, Communications Planning to act on my behalf until a new Managing Director is selected. In addition, Andy Weiler, Executive Director, Strategic Communications and the rest of the head office team are in place to offer the services you need to deliver communications support to your clients. I know that you will all support Tracy and Andy over the next few weeks and apply your considerable talent and skills to the roll-out of a budget that requires tough but smart choices to deal with our government’s fiscal challenge.

Let me close by saying thank you to the PAB team for your support and encouragement.

Everything I accomplished during my tenure as Managing Director was made possible by you. I have learned much from the many projects we have worked on together and I leave this organization with new knowledge and skills. I wish you all continued success in your careers and personal life, you deserve nothing less.

All the best,


Click here to read the statement issued by Premier Redford’s Communications Director, Stefan Baranski.

Alberta Politics

Big turnover in Premier’s communications office.

After staff departures, former Ontario-based political operatives hold two top roles in Alberta Premier’s Office.

Last week it was announced that Jay O’Neill is departing his job as Director Communications under Premier Alison Redford‘s. Although Mr. O’Neill only joined the Premier’s office in late 2011, it is not uncommon for individuals to only fill these types positions for a short period of time.

The Tories were hit with a handful of embarrassing scandals in the closing months of 2012 and were caught unprepared, having to spend the fall sitting of the Assembly playing defence against an aggressive Wildrose Party opposition. The Spring sitting of the Assembly will begin on March 5, 2013.

Premier Alison Redford
Premier Alison Redford

Four other staff left or announced their departures from Premier Redford’s communications office over the past few months, perhaps a result of internal pressure to change direction and take a more aggressive approach towards political communications in 2013.

Tammy Forbes left her job as the Premier’s Communications Liaison Manager to become Chief of Staff to embattled Tourism Parks and Recreation Minister Christine Cusanelli. Minister Cusanelli faced harsh criticism before the Christmas break when she was forced to repay the government $10,600 for expenses racked up in her first five months in office, including a $4,000 airfare charge to have her daughter and mother fly with her to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, United Kingdom.

Before joining the Premier’s office in 2011, Ms. Forbes was director of communications in the Department of Transportation.

Two other departing staff have jumped from their political jobs to roles in the public service. Tracy Balash has left the Premier’s Communications Office to become the Executive Director of Communications Planning in the Public Affairs Bureau (PAB). As noted in a recent Globe & Mail article, the PAB is in a period of transition after the retirement of Kathy Lazowski, its executive director of strategic communications.

Stefan Baranski
Stefan Baranski

The Premier’s Issues Manager Nikki Booth is now the Acting Issues Manager (Communications) in the Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

Kim Misik, the Premier’s press secretary, also announced that she will be leaving her position.

Social Media Manager Mike Jenkinson remains the longest serving member of the Premier’s team, having started in the office during Ed Stelmach‘s premiership.

The new Director of Communications is Stefan Baranski, who joined the Premier’s office as Director of Strategic Communications in September 2012 after leaving his job with the Toronto-based Counsel Public Affairs firm. In Ontario, he served as senior advisor to PC Party leaders Tim Hudak and John Tory, and Premier Ernie Eves.

Mr. Baranski is not the only former Ontario-based political operative in the Premier’s office. While originally from Alberta, Director of Operations Darren Cunningham is a veteran of Ottawa’s political scene, having served in Chief of Staff and communications roles for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and various Conservative cabinet ministers. He started working for the Premier’s office in June 2012. Another Ottawa insider, Lee Richardson left his job as a Member of Parliament to become the Premier’s Principal Secretary in May 2012.

It is suspected that not all of these vacant positions in the Communications office will be filled. Some sources suggest that the Premier’s office may increase their reliance on consultants from outside political and communications companies to fill the gap.

Alberta Politics

Three investigations kick-off 2013 in Alberta politics.

Despite winning a large majority in last spring’s provincial election, Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservatives had a rough ride in the media and on the floor of the Assembly last year. If Tory MLAs hoped for a reprieve in 2013, they may be disappointed.

Starting off the year are three investigations that are direct results of political scandals and controversies from 2012:

Queue-Jumping Investigation

After a disappointing start late last year, the Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry continued this week with testimony from former Capital Health CEO Sheila Weatherill.

Fred Horne

Today, former Capital Health Board Chair Neil Wilkinson (now Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner) and Health Minister Fred Horne will be questioned. On Friday, Calgary Flames team doctor Jim Thorne and former Alberta Health Services chairman Ken Hughes (now an MLA and Energy Minister) will be appear as witnesses before the inquiry.

Anyone looking for a Watergate-type scandal that directly connects politically-influenced queue-jumping to the Premier’s office will likely be disappointed.

Elections Alberta investigates billionaire’s donations to PC Party

Global Edmonton:

“…retired Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Ernest Marshall has been appointed Director of the investigation, and Don Vander Graaf and Dave Davies have been retained as independent investigators.”

Daryl Katz

Elections Alberta will investigate a large donation allegedly made by pharmaceutical industry billionaire Daryl Katz, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, to the Progressive Conservative Party during the 2012 election. Mr. Katz is alleged to have made a $430,000 donation to the PC Party by funnelling funds through his family and employees. Under Alberta’s elections finance laws, maximum individual donations during an election period are limited to $30,000.

While to election finance laws introduced last year by Justice Minister Jonathan Denis allow for more disclosure of donors, the new laws did not further restrict the amount that an individual or corporation can donate to a political party.

Ethics Commissioner investigates tobacco conflict allegations

Premier Alison Redford Alberta
Premier Alison Redford

Ethics Commissioner Mr. Wilkinson will investigate alleged conflict-of-interest in a decision by the government to award a lucrative tobacco lawsuit contract to a firm where Premier Alison Redford‘s ex-husband works as a lawyer.

The official decision to choose the firm was made after the Premier had resigned as Justice Minister in 2012, but the recommendation of which law firm to choose was made during her tenure in the position.


Communications shift

Jay O’Neill, Director of Communications for Premier Redford is leaving his position. Globe  & Mail journalist Josh Wingrove noted on Twitter yesterday that over the last few months, along with Mr. O’Neill, four other staff have departed from Premier Redford’s communications office at the Assembly (Mr. O’Neill, Nikki Booth, Kim Misik, Tammy Forbes, Tracy Balash).

While it is difficult to speculate whether these departures were voluntary or not, it does appear that the Premier’s office may be taking steps to improve its communications and issues management strategy (especially in light of the investigations noted above).