On the December 12 Council Meeting, staff abruptly got up and stepped out of Council Chambers when local resident Gail Hall presented her critical input at a Public Hearing, regarding Bylaw 658, modifications to the Financial Plan. (Watch the queued video below.)
The pre-emptive warning
In the staff introduction to the bylaw, Corporate Officer Gabryel Joseph issued a warning that to Councillors stating that they were all required to vote for the bylaw.
“Any Councillor who votes for any expenditure outside of the budget who then in turn does not vote for a bylaw amendment at the end of the year reconciling those expenses is in contravention of the Community Charter and is liable to, up to and including, disqualification from office, both immediately and in four years forward which would include the next election,” he warned, continuing, “So, as you’ve all voted for motions which have caused expenditures outside of the budget, you are all required to vote for this.”
The public hearing
Thus, with that pre-emptive framework, began the Public Hearing. Sooke resident Gail Hall attempted to express her concerns.
“I’m going to go back to the staff report that introduces this bylaw,” began Ms. Hall. “It says that, Expenditures have been since approved that were not included in the original bylaw. Could someone tell me, please, who approved those expenditures?”
After some to and fro with Mayor Maja Tait about the best utilization of Ms. Hall’s two minute time limit, Ms. Hall continued.
“Council’s been misled on this,” she said. “This staff report is not accurate. Your bylaw that you’re bringing forward tonight is not legal. You can’t bring in a bylaw to amend your five year plan if you’ve already spent the money. The money’s been expended. Those were illegal expenditures, and if you want to vote for it…”
“Ms Hall, I’m going to just ask you to pause,” interrupted the mayor, because by then all eight staff in attendance stood up and silently started to leave. CAO Teresa Sullivan stood up first, and all other staff, including Director of Finance Brent Blackhall, Director of Development Services Rob Howat, and Director of Corporate Services Gabryel Joseph, along with the Deputy Corporate Officer, two Planners, and a Corporate Services Clerk, all filed out.
“I’m allowing our staff to leave,” said the mayor. “Comments that have been made have been impacting my ability to have a safe working environment, and so some of the comments that have been made, where there are allegations of staff doing something criminal or untoward…”
“Oh come on,” Ms. Hall interrupted the mayor. “That’s got nothing to do with this, I’m trying to tell you that you can’t, it’s the old adage that….”
The mayor intervened again to make sure someone else would take notes, in staff’s absence.
Ms. Hall left.
The mayor invited other members of the public to come forward and speak to the bylaw.
No one did.
Staff was invited back into the Council Chamber.
Staff object to defamation
The local weekly newspaper published an online article, “Sooke District staff abruptly walks out of meeting”. In it, the CAO Teresa Sullivan is on record as saying that the walkout was planned, and that she would do it again. From the print paper: “Sullivan said her staff will walk out again if Hall or any other member of the public comes to council and starts defaming staff, admitting the walkout was planned to protect staff.”
Defamation is an intentionally false communication, either written (libel) or spoken (slander) that harms another person’s reputation.
Ms. Hall was addressing the mandated processes attached to municipal spending of money. Ms Hall, who has attended almost all meetings in 2016, asked who had approved the expenditures.
Defamation did not occur.
Mayor protects staff from harassment
The mayor’s statement, “Comments that have been made have been impacting my ability to have a safe working environment,” implied harassment.
The BC Human Rights Code is clear on their definition of harassment: When an employee is being bullied because of their race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation or age because of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to the employment, then harassment has occurred.
Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion, to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. Bullying is repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite to bullying is an imbalance of power, thereby distinguishing it from conflict.
Close to a million dollars of salaried staff—many with finger-tip access to lawyers, legal interpretations and opinions, bylaw resources, and union and legal job protection rules, and with unparalleled access to the town’s law-makers—walked out the room objecting to Ms. Hall’s criticism of their proposed bylaw.
While there may have been conflict, there was no imbalance of power, there was no harassment.
Ms. Hall started to speak to her concerns about the legality of the Bylaw 658. Staff walked out of the room, objecting to defamation. The mayor expressed her obligation to keep District staff safe from harassment.
There was nothing left to say.
The bylaw passed its fourth reading. Unanimously.