Meaford’s Council will participate in a training session recommended by the municipality’s Integrity Commissioner after investigating complaints made against Councillor Tony Bell.
At Council’s May 31 meeting, Bell made comments relating to municipal staff who have taken medical or stress leaves that resulted in two complaints being submitted.
“We have heard over and over that the stress level because of COVID, has been, in some cases, it’s been really rugged on members of staff. And even in this report we read that having public meetings has been stressful for staff because it was welcome from a democratic point of view that the public engage and let us know how they feel about subject matter and at the same time it was presented in the report as somewhat onerous, and it was difficult for staff to handle this kind of comment from the ratepayer,” Bell told Council on May 31, while discussing a revised staff organizational structure. “So I am suggesting that if we have people on the inside of this municipality, and they feel that they are overwhelmed, that it is too much, in any business, people have to make a decision for themselves and for their families. What is the very best road for them? And if they truly believe that things have, and I’m just going to say it, if they’ve got to you, if you are overwhelmed, you may have to make a decision.”
During Council’s September 27 meeting, Principles Integrity, contracted by the municipality to provide Integrity Commissioner services, presented their report regarding the complaints received.
“On May 31, 2021, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) brought a report to Council recommending organization changes. Entitled ‘Organizational Structure & Additional Staffing Resources’, the report recommended to respond strategically to growth pressures facing the municipality and spoke to a number of proposed changes, including the recruitment of four new staff,” the report noted. “During the deliberations, as members grappled with the notion of adding staff, the Respondent (Bell) made a statement that suggested that staff who may be struggling with stress brought on as a result of the demands and expectations of work should essentially decide ‘what is best’ for themselves and their families, in a way that enables management to replace them in their positions.”
The Integrity Commissioner’s report noted that in response to the comments, Mayor Barb Clumpus and CAO Rob Armstrong sought to reassure staff.
“The Councillor’s statement took many of the participants and observers in the meeting aback. If it was not immediately clear to those in attendance that the Respondent’s comments were entirely inappropriate, it was evident that, upon reflection, that a counterbalancing statement was required,” noted the Integrity Commissioner’s report. “On June 1, 2021, within 90 minutes of each other, both the Mayor and the CAO sent emails to all staff advising of the organizational changes and, significantly, emphasizing the appreciation of all staff of the municipality in their respective roles.”
The following day, two complaints were filed with Principles Integrity.
“On June 2, 2021, we received separate complaints from two members of senior administrative staff of the municipality that Councillor Bell had made derogatory and disparaging comments about staff at the Council meeting of May 31, 2021,” explained the Integrity Commissioner. “In particular, it is alleged that the Councillor stated publicly that staff who are struggling with mental health issues and ‘can’t handle it’ should leave the organization and can just be replaced by someone new. The complaints alleged that the statements breached the Code of Conduct and the Council-Staff-Relations Policy, constitute harassment or discrimination of staff dealing with mental health issues, demonstrated a lack of respect for staff, disparaged staff’s reputation, and damaged the relationship between staff and Council.”
In their analysis of the complaints, Principles Integrity noted the increased stress that has been experienced by staff recently.
“The Municipality of Meaford is experiencing growth pressures, not unlike other municipalities of its kind in Ontario. In response, corporate management is transitioning in order to deal with anticipated growth. Change management places demands on staff as attention is focused on strategic priorities in addition to transactional processes,” advised the Integrity Commissioner in their report to Council. “The usual stresses of life can take their toll on employees. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have added to the day-to-day stresses of many. When stress builds, it can take its toll. For some, the convergence of these demands can temporarily push individuals beyond their ability to cope. The responsibility of employers and those in leadership, in accommodating and supporting employees struggling with mental health issues, is an important issue.”
Councillor Bell’s comments on May 31 had come after Council had met in closed session on May 17 to discuss staffing issues.
“On May 17, 2021, Council met in closed session to discuss some of these issues. At this closed session meeting, Council was made aware of the fact that several key senior staff were currently off on stress leaves. During closed session, personal information about individual employees can be shared with members of Council, however, Council members are required by policy and legislation to maintain confidentiality around such information,” noted the report.
The report also noted that Councillor Bell was quick to accept responsibility for his comments.
“In his response to our initiation of our complaint investigation the Respondent readily recognized that his comments exhibited a lack of understanding of the Municipality’s obligations in regard to supporting and accommodating the mental health and well-being of employees. Suggesting that an employee who has dedicated many years to their career at the municipality, who is on leave due to health problems, should quit if they can’t handle things to make room for a replacement, is not acceptable. Doing so publicly lacks sensitivity and empathy, and was hurtful to a number of staff members who either heard it or were made aware of it. The comment was not respectful of staff, and so violated at least one provision in the Code of Conduct,” the report explained, adding that, “Repeated comments of the type would likely be found to be either harassing or bullying, or both. The comments may reflect a populist view which plays to a segment of the public, downplaying the legitimacy of mental health challenges staff may be experiencing, and implying that they were simply ‘taking up space’ on the roster and should step aside.
“As noted, during our investigation, the Respondent acknowledged that his statement was inappropriate and he has avowed his sincere regret. The Respondent has also endorsed the need for training described in the recommendations to this report.”
The Integrity Commissioner’s report recommended an in-person training session for members of Council and senior municipal staff. That meeting will be held on November 8, 2021, and will include the following:
• An overview of the good conduct provisions set out in the Code of Conduct;
• The roles and responsibilities of councillors and staff respectively;
• A discussion of good governance practices relating to the exercise of councillors’ roles and responsibilities;
• Guidance for dealing with sensitive topics such as mental health in the workplace.
After the report had been presented to Council on September 27, Councillor Bell expressed regret for his remarks, and he explained that no malice had been intended.
“I do want to be very clear on this, through the investigation, I can only say that Principles Integrity is an absolutely professional organization,” Bell told Council. “They did a very complete investigation. I believe that the result should be looked upon as something absolutely positive. We’re going to benefit, I really, truly believe that. I absolutely look forward to the opportunity for an open conversation with Principles Integrity and staff.”
The report will be posted on the Municipality of Meaford’s website for public access.