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Barrie councillors could beef up city's workplace harassment policy

'Often... you don’t recognize a policy’s shortcomings until it actually has to be used. That appears to be what happened here,' says deputy-mayor
2021-03-24 NC Barrie City Hall4
Barrie City Hall is shown in a file photo.

The city’s ‘respect in the workplace policy’ could have some teeth.

Barrie councillors will vote Monday night on a motion to change the council and committee member Code of Conduct and the council-staff relations policy, along with other actions taken by the city resulting from a workplace harassment investigation last year involving a councillor and city staff member.

“I’m happy to see these changes, which should provide more clarity in the future on how complaints are handled,” said Deputy Mayor Barry Ward. “I do think we should try to be the best when it comes to responding to discrimination, violence, harassment or sexual harassment.”

The city strives to update its policies to reflect changing circumstances, including new provincial legislation and changes to other city policies, such as the council Code of Conduct, an agreed-upon understanding by all members of council about what standards they should meet in the individual conduct of their official duties, Ward said.

“Often, of course, you don’t recognize a policy’s shortcomings until it actually has to be used,” he said. “That appears to be what happened here.”

The city previously had separate policies addressing workplace violence and harassment  including a workplace human rights policy and violence in the workplace policy, as well as corresponding workplace human rights procedure.

Council directed a review of the city’s workplace policies dealing with harassment, violence, human rights discrimination and Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) matters.

After the review, the various policies were combined into a single ‘respect in the workplace policy’ that has been reviewed by and reflects the comments of the city’s joint health and safety committee, internal legal counsel, external legal counsel, Aird & Berlis LLP, the director of human resources and the integrity commissioner.

The policy has been amended to clearly identify that it applies to discrimination, violence, harassment  including sexual harassment  as defined under the Human Rights Code or OHSA.

It applies to all city employees, and individuals who interact with city employees, including members of council, those appointed to council committees and boards, contractors and consultants, volunteers and patrons in the context of their interactions and dealings with city employees.

The policy also defers to the integrity commissioner with respect to any complaint made against those who hold office as a member of council or as a member of a city board or on a council committee under the policy; the integrity commissioner may conduct an investigation irrespective of and concurrently with any investigation performed by the city.

The policy says the city must refer a complaint to the integrity commissioner where the target of the complaint is a member of council or a council appointee to a committee or local board.

The city’s chief administrative officer must make an annual report of the number of complaints received and processed, the nature of the complaints, the resolution of the complaints and all recommendations made.

The timeline for submitting a complaint about a council member, city committee or board member is no longer than six months from the incident occurring, aligning it with the Code of Conduct.

The ‘respect in the workplace policy’ is an administrative policy, so it doesn’t require council approval. Staff have presented it for information purposes.

But changes to the Code of Conduct and the council-staff relations policy require council approval.

Late last year, a settlement was reached relating to an investigation into workplace harassment involving a Barrie councillor and a city employee. Council approved a motion "that Aird Berlis and city staff be authorized to finalize the minutes of settlement as discussed at the confidential general committee meeting on Dec. 15, 2020, subject to reasonable modifications, and that the mayor and city clerk be authorized to execute minutes of settlement and other associated documentation to give effect to the settlement."

What the settlement was and who is involved was not part of the motion council passed. The councillor and employee have not been formally identified.

Corrective measures have also been put in place. They include the councillor undertaking training relative to workplace violence and harassment, funded by the city and approved by the city’s chief administrative officer and/or director of human resources, the councillor being required to strictly comply with the city’s staff-council relations policy, to only make contact with staff through the appropriate management, and the councillor being requested to issue a written apology to the complainant, if requested, and council for their conduct.

BarrieToday made a Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request for the finalized 'minutes of settlement’ and ‘other associated documentation’, along with staff report HRS002-20, dated Oct. 20, 2020, a confidential personal information and solicitor-client privilege matter on a workplace investigation. 

In its response, the city ruled "the records associated with your request are being withheld completely."

Reasons included that the requested documents were highly sensitive personal information, disclosure may unfairly damage the reputation of someone referred to in the records, they reveal the substance of talks held during a closed-door meeting, and it’s information that’s subject to solicitor-client privilege.