West Nipissing’s CAO is still awaiting a response from the province several days after making it known that municipal staff would no longer be attending regular council meetings due to the “untenable and toxic environment.”
In a memo to council members, as well as the Minister of Labour and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) on Friday March 25, Jay Barbeau said staff would be withdrawing from 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.”
Barbeau stated he was acting to protect municipal staff. “In my discussions at various areas, the common theme is this is now impacting all employees to varying degrees,” wrote Barbeau. “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.”
On Tuesday morning, Barbeau said there hasn’t been the kind of urgent response from those ministries as he would have hoped, and that staff is exploring the next steps to resolve the matter in short time.
“I am at the whim of the province and so I will act according to what the province directs me to once I’ve made contact,” he said. “My hope is to get things done as quickly as possible.”
Barbeau’s call for the province to intercede in this dysfunctional council was echoed on Friday by local developer Steve Morrison. The president of Casa Development penned his own open letter to MMAH Minister Steve Clark, as well as MPP Vic Fedeli and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, pleading for the province to declare all council seats vacant.
“This war has been ongoing for the entire term of this Municipal mandate, combined with a pandemic, it is literally destroying any hope of progress in the Municipality. It has escalated to the point where Council would rather file lawsuits against each other instead of dealing with the business of the day,” wrote Morrison. “The negative impact this issue has on developers, merchants, builders and the entire population creates a great disservice to residents, and through no fault of their own, are now receiving services that are less than Provincial standards as a result.”
Melissa Diakoumeas, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said they were in the process of reviewing Barbeau’s letter and remained available to both council and staff to provide information and guidance. But just like in January when the MMAH was called to intervene after council had not convened in about two months, their initial suggestion was essentially for the town to solve its own mess.
“One of council’s responsibilities as an employer is to provide a safe working environment for its employees. We have been very clear that we will not tolerate workplace harassment or discrimination of any kind,” wrote Diakoumeas. “Councillors and heads of council must carry out their duties as elected officials in an ethical, responsible and respectful manner. We encourage council to work with staff to address the concerns raised and to seek advice from the municipal legal counsel.”
Ironically, seeking advice from the municipality’s legal counsel was the inciting incident that prompted this withdrawal from staff.