An ongoing bullying and harassment issue at the City of Revelstoke has been revealed through documents obtained from WorkSafeBC through a freedom of information request filed by revelstokemountaineer.com.
The documents show that a “workplace bullying and harassment” report was filed with the provincial workplace safety regulator, and that a WorkSafeBC compliance officer was assigned to the case, filing several reports in September through November as he tried to bring the city’s bullying and harassment policies into compliance, and also sought reports on a specific complaint. The report noted the city was not in compliance with some policies, and that some of its actions following the complaint were, “not a reasonable response based on the facts presented.” However, many details were redacted from the document.
By-election delays raise questions
Our investigation into the issue started following unexplained by-election delays after the resignation in January 2020 of city councillor Steven Cross. Just over a year into his term, Cross resigned after his attempts at the council table to stop council plans to raise its own pay over several years were defeated during the budget cycle. Cross resigned, citing concerns about the ethics of the mayor and council.
Following the resignation, in a February 2020 column in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine, we noted delays in setting a date for a new by-election. Nearly a year later, the by-election still hasn’t been held, but is scheduled for Feb. 13, with three candidates running.
After the onset of the COVID-19, by-elections were suspended in B.C., but in late July, provincial authorities allowed them to resume under new guidelines. Over a month passed with no word from the city on a by-election. When the mayor, Gary Sulz, was questioned by local media, he offered several explanations for the delays. At various points he said the city didn’t want to hold an election in the summer, that COVID-19 was a barrier (despite many other municipalities resuming their by-elections), that he wanted to delay the by-election to see the results of the provincial election in which Councillor Nicole Cherlet was a candidate, and after the B.C. election concluded, that the city didn’t want to hold an election during the Christmas season.
However, in early September while we were questioning the delay, it became clear that key senior staff usually responsible for running the election process were on leave, and their absences were unexplained.
In November, revelstokemountaineer.com reported that Curtis Slingerland, now former Director of Corporate Administration, was no longer employed by the City of Revelstoke. He had been hired in April of 2020 to fill the post left vacant when Dawn Low, current Chief Administrative Officer, was promoted from the position. It appears he was only actively on the job for a few months.
We also reported that the city’s Manager of Legislative Services, Teresa LeRose, a long-serving city hall employee for over 30 years, was on leave and had not returned to her job, which was being filled on an interim basis. LeRose has yet to return to the city, and her current employment status is unknown.
In an audio interview with revelstokemountaineer.com in October, we asked Mayor Gary Sulz about the absences, but he declined to comment, citing personnel issues. We also asked him to comment on the impact having key staff members absent would have on the city’s ability to hold an election, but he also declined to comment, again citing personnel issues.
With no explanations for staff departures and leaves, and reasonable belief that it had impacted the city’s ability to hold a by-election, we filed freedom of information requests to seek more background on the situation.
What did the FOI documents reveal?
After correspondence with WorkSafeBC starting in October, revelstokemountaineer.com filed a freedom of information request with the provincial workplace safety regulator on Nov. 18.
The request sought out documentation related to “bullying and harassment complaint filed against a senior City of Revelstoke staff member and possibly other senior staff person or elected officials, somewhere between July and October of this year,” as quoted in the WorkSafeBC response.
In late December, WorkSafeBC responded to the request by providing 30 pages of documents outlining its involvement in compliance inspections with the City of Revelstoke between September and into December. The response notes that the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) requires the WorkSafeBC to “neither confirm nor deny whether individuals mentioned in your [revelstokemountaineer.com] request were involved in bullying and harassment at the City of Revelstoke.” This means that although the request asked for reports relating to complaints about senior city staff, the response does not mean the allegations of bullying and harassment are necessarily related to any staff member in particular.
The response also notes some information has been severed from the document to protect invasion of a third party’s privacy.
View the documents obtained from WorkSafeBC through a revelstokemountaineer.com freedom of information request here:
Bullying and harassment policy compliance, individual complaint
The reports outline a WorkSafeBC inspections officer working with the City of Revelstoke to see that its bullying and harassment policies are up to code, and also following up on a specific complaint. The documents have several sections redacted, with specific sentences and paragraphs blacked out digitally.
It starts with a report on a Sept. 10, 2020 inspection in which the WorkSafeBC officer notes the City of Revelstoke “is required to submit to WorkSafeBC a summary of the follow up or investigation for the report of bullying and harassment.”
The report lists seven elements required in the summary of the investigation, its outcome, whether the employer followed procedure, the name of the investigator, and “whether the employer found the allegations of bullying and harassment to be substantiated.”
A second inspection report also dated Sept. 10, 2020, is the first report document in a series focusing on the city’s overall workplace bullying and harassment policy and procedures. The reports show a process whereby they were assessed, submitted, revised after feedback, and then okayed.
A subsequent report dated Oct. 16, notes that a “notice of compliance report” is outstanding. It said the City of Revelstoke had provided evidence that it had developed policy and procedures for bullying and harassment prevention, but that four areas were outstanding, and that their absence was a contravention of a section of the Workers Compensation Act.
The report cites the following policy and procedure gaps:
-more details on how an investigation will be conducted, in person, document review, etc.
-timing of the investigation process needs to be defined
-roles of employers, supervisors and workers needs to be specified for an investigation
-corrective actions following investigation timing needs to be specified.”
An Oct. 23 report noted that the policy and procedures issues had been resolved and were in compliance and the next step was for the city to, “ensure workers are trained on the updated procedures.”
The report notes requirements for some pages of the WorkSafeBC notices to be posted where staff can view them.
The individual complaint
The stream of the document focused on the individual complaint remained active as of Dec. 20, the deadline for the city to provide a “notice of compliance” report to WorkSafeBC on outstanding compliance issues.
The first report is on Sept. 10, a request from WorkSafeBC for seven specific things; boiled down they are the details of the incident, information on city procedures, the facts of the investigation, next corrective steps, and a privacy reminder.
Later, in a report dated Nov. 20, WorkSafeBC said the city was taking “reasonable corrective actions,” but was still not in compliance with requirements, then listed a few short paragraphs that are redacted. “The decision is not a reasonable response based on the facts presented,” it ends, saying “this is in contravention of the Workers Compensation Act, Section 21 (1)(a),” in reference to a general section requiring employers ensure worker health and safety.
The report gives the city until Dec. 20 to comply and file another report, and it appears the compliance issue was ongoing when WorkSafeBC provided us documents in response to our freedom of information request.
Analysis: An incomplete but concerning picture
Bullying and harassment issues are a quagmire for any organization, municipal governments included. They sap time and resources, cause personal injury to individuals, and can be very costly for taxpayers, who bear the cost of expensive legal bills and settlements paid out to staff entitled to compensation due to the employer not providing a safe working environment. The most recent documents provided by WorkSafeBC show that the city was still in contravention of the Workers Compensation Act on the complaint.
Due to privacy and confidentiality requirements surrounding bullying and harassment complaints, the tendency in municipal governments is for everyone involved to go silent, citing privacy laws. However, it’s our assessment that this incident has been a major one for city and is the source of curtailed and challenging communications from the city and division between the mayor and some councillors.
On Nov. 2, revelstokemountaineer.com filed a freedom of information with the City of Revelstoke, seeking information on compensation paid to departing staff, and also seeking information on the complaint itself. On Nov. 10, the city responded with an acknowledgement letter, stating they had 30 business days to respond. On Dec. 2, as the deadline neared, the city sent a letter stating they’d applied for an extension, and were now targeting Jan. 21, 2020 to provide the information in question, although there is no guarantee they will provide the documents at that point; another extension is possible.
Some key questions remain:
-What is the cost to taxpayers for legal work that would be required to deal with the issue, for lost productivity at city hall, and through any settlements the city has or will reach with departing staff members?
-What is the nature of the bullying complaint and has the source of the issue and any staff involved been dealt with appropriately?
-Has council been included appropriately in decisions related to the issue? Has information requested by them been provided by mayor and senior staff? When asked to make decisions on the matter, did they have adequate background information to make decisions?
-Has the issue been resolved satisfactorily? Have staff been trained in bullying and harassment policies as required by WorkSafeBC? Do staff feel they can work in a bullying and harassment-free environment?
-What will be the outcome of the ongoing as-yet unresolved individual complaint?
Revelstokemountaineer.com will follow up with additional reporting on this ongoing issue.