West Nipissing’s Chief Administrative Officer sent out a notice to members of council that his staff would no longer be attending council meetings until the provincial government “intercede at a level that can ensure decorum and respect.”
In a memo sent to the mayor and council this morning, Jay Barbeau informed members that his staff wouldn’t return to these meetings “until such time as there are the necessary changes at these meetings to ensure that staff can perform their duties free of the toxicity and conflict that has been the norm rather than the exception.”
Until then, there will be no budget or regular council meetings for West Nipissing.
Barbeau’s memo noted the emotional and psychological toll working in such a toxic environment was taking on municipal staff and that it could no longer continue.
“In my discussions at various areas, the common theme is this is now impacting all employees to varying degrees,” he wrote. “Our professional staff continue to want to serve the public. The analogy that was shared with me is that despite workers being OK working in potential unsafe environments (ie. faulty equipment) this cannot be acceptable to the employer and the employer must act despite the willingness of staff to ‘continue if they have to.’ Emotional and psychological situations are no less important. While I respect the continued dedication of staff, I must intercede.”
The environment at West Nipissing council has long been confrontational, disrespectful and overall ineffective, but the final straw came at a special meeting earlier this week. Mayor Joanne Savage adjourned the meeting after a heated debate around whether members of council could proceed into closed session to hear legal advice after Savage and Councillors Yvon Duhaime, Denis Sénécal and Lise Sénécal threatened a defamation suit against the municipality.
“Adding to the stress is a letter received by the Corporation that is being blocked by the Mayor and certain Council members from being tabled at Council in the appropriate manner,” wrote Barbeau in his memo. “It is my understanding that the letter references ‘senior staff’ on allegations that have not been heard. Staff have no ability to know whether they are the target of an outside legal warning. This, given the litany of other issues, has created an environment that is becoming untenable.”
The litany of other issues included a near-two month stretch in November and December 2021 where council didn’t hold a regular meeting. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) somewhat intervened, providing a presentation to council to remind them of their duties. But presenters Kathy Horgan, Manager of Local Government and Housing and Bridget Schulte-Hostedde, Director of Northern Municipal Services, did not come to adjudicate council’s issues, so once the presentation was over, meetings went back to their toxic ways.
Barbeau’s memo called on the MMAH, as well as the Ministry of Labour, to take corrective action with council.
“My hope is that I can work with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs in very short order to implement interim solutions that would protect staff from future toxicity. I hope to discuss this matter in more detail with the province so that this pause can be minimized,” said Barbeau. “Once I have been contacted by the appropriate agency of the Province, I will share developments with Council. I hope to be able to provide options that will satisfy our moral obligation to a workplace free of potential harm to our employees.”
The CAO noted that while delaying all meetings would cause hardship, given that lately, council is unable to accomplish anything, this work refusal would “not impact negatively any more than the present situation.”
For more on this developing story, check out the next issue of the Tribune.