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Act to thwart workplace harassment at city hall on the horizon

'I think this is actually a good way to make the consequences for these kinds of actions fit the crime,' says Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman
2022-06-02 Jeff Lehman crop
Jeff Lehman

A law creating a path for municipal councils to remove their members who violate workplace violence and harassment policies is back on the Ontario government’s radar.

Orleans MPP Stephen Blais, the Liberal municipal affairs critic, introduced the Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act for the third time Wednesday in the Ontario legislature.

“City councillors and mayors must be held to a higher standard for workplace violence and harassment,” Blais said. “In any other working environment, employees would lose their jobs for the behaviours we’ve seen in Ottawa, Brampton, Mississauga, Barrie and likely countless others.”

Barrie city council endorsed the Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act in April 2022. If passed, the act would permit municipalities to direct their integrity commissioners to apply to the court to vacate a member’s seat for failing to comply with the municipalities’ workplace violence and harassment policies, as laid out in their codes of conduct.

“I think this is actually a good way to make the consequences for these kinds of actions fit the crime,” said Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman. “If the integrity commissioner was to recommend removal from office, they would have to petition the court to do that, and that’s a good thing because it creates a check and balance even on the integrity commissioner’s decision.”

He noted a judicial second look is important before action as serious as removing a sitting councillor is taken.

“So, it would not be the case that the integrity commissioner could simply say, ‘You’re off council,’” Lehman said. “It would be the case that the integrity commissioner would have to go to the court and say, ‘Here are my findings. I believe this reaches the threshold that this person should be removed from council,’ and the judge would have to agree.

“Then you’ve got at least two people, both quite learned, outside, independent individuals, that would have to reach that conclusion and not just one. I think that’s appropriate,” Lehman added.

Barrie’s mayor said the situation today makes little sense, where the only way to remove a councillor from office is through the Conflict of Interest Act, which was originally to recognize there’s the potential for corruption in any government position.

And as it stands today, the integrity commissioner can only recommend something to council. Council has to agree to it.

“That piece of it, I have more trepidation about because it continues to put councillors in the position of judging their peers, which, as we’ve seen during the term of Barrie city council, regardless of whether the (integrity commissioner) recommendation is relatively minor or as serious as something like sexual harassment, it’s always a very difficult position for councillors to be put in,” Lehman said.

“But let’s not lose sight of the main issue here that (the act) gives real teeth to the code of conduct when it comes to matters as serious as sexual harassment.”

The code of conduct is an agreed-upon understanding by all members of Barrie city council about what standards they should meet in the individual conduct of their official duties.

In late 2020, a settlement was reached relating to an investigation into workplace harassment involving a Barrie councillor and a city employee. What the settlement was and who was involved was not part of the motion council passed. The councillor and employee have not been formally identified.

BarrieToday made a Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request for the finalized minutes of settlement and other associated documentation. In its response, the city ruled “the records associated with your request are being withheld completely.”

Barrie Coun. Mike McCann, who is running for mayor in the Oct. 24 election, faces a $200,000 lawsuit by Amanda Kelly, 32, a senior business innovation and entrepreneurship officer with the city, alleging sexual assault and harassment in the statement of claim filed Jan. 17 in Ontario Superior Court.

McCann has denied the allegations.

None of the allegations have been tested nor proven in court.

Blais first introduced the Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act in March 2021, and then again in October 2021. It passed second reading unanimously on March 9, 2022, and was sent to the committee on social policy — but the Ontario government chose not to hold hearings on the bill or debate it at third reading before the June 2 general election.

“This is a non-partisan issue,” Blais said. “The Ontario government needs to stop playing political games and get legislation passed as soon as possible. If they can give mayors more power, certainly they can ensure mayors and their council colleagues are held to higher standards for behaviour in the workplace.”

Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, which won a majority in the provincial election, intends to give the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa veto power over council decisions, although that veto could be overturned by a vote of two-thirds of council members.

The Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act would also prevent those who are removed from office from seeking re-election in the subsequent two general elections. These penalties are similar to existing legislation for conflict of interest and election finance violations.

“I hope that this is the last time I will need to re-introduce this legislation and am calling on the government to turn it into law as quickly as possible,” Blais said of the act.

“Municipal elections are around the corner and the government has the opportunity to ensure everyone on the ballot knows there will be strong consequences for their actions should they be elected.”

Nominations close Aug. 19 for local mayor, councillor and school board trustee positions.