City council has given its support to a provincial bill that would help prevent workplace abuse around municipal council tables.
The Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act, or Bill 5, aims to create a process for municipal councils to remove their own members for workplace violence and harassment.
Currently, the harshest penalty that may be imposed on a councillor is suspension and loss of pay for 90 days, even in cases involving workplace harassment and abuse. There is currently no process to remove a municipal council member from office.
On Monday evening, council resolved to draft a letter supporting the bill, to be sent to Premier Doug Ford, the County of Simcoe, and several provincial representatives.
A request for council’s support was made by Alyssa Wright from Women of Simcoe Say No in a deputation to council Monday afternoon. She stressed the need to put the bill in place quickly as municipalities across the province get ready for a new term of municipal council.
“We are about to have a municipal election, which means that unless Bill 5 is passed, our incoming elected officials know that they will have four years of carte blanche to behave as badly as they wish, just so long as they don't get criminally convicted,” Wright said.
“Fortunately, most mayors and councillors would likely not take advantage of such freedom, but the possibility is still there and we need to shut that possibility down. We need Bill 5 passed yesterday," said Wright.
The bill would amend the Municipal Act, 2001 and create a process by which a municipality could remove a council member or local board member from office for breaching workplace violence and harassment policies.
“As soon as Bill 5 is passed, each municipality’s code of conduct will include a requirement for councillors and members of local boards to comply with workplace violence and harassment policies,” Wright said. “It would also permit municipalities and local boards to direct the Integrity Commissioner to apply to the court to vacate a member's seat if it is determined that the member has contravened these violence and harassment policies.”
Wright explained that Bill 5 would create restrictions on such officials from running for office again.
“Should a member be removed from office in this way, there will be restrictions on their running in subsequent elections, or just being reappointed to the council or local board, in much the same way as a candidate who fails to file a financial statement for their election campaign is currently prevented from running in a subsequent election,” she said.
Given the consequences of failing to file a financial statement for their election campaign, Wright stressed the importance of supporting the bill.
“Under current legislation, someone who doesn't file a campaign financial report is prevented from running in the next election, but an incumbent who is found to have assaulted a staff member, a colleague, or a member of the public has no such restrictions and is free to run again. This makes no sense.”
Coun. Pat Hehn highlighted her own difficult experiences being on council, and suggested the lack of accountability for workplace abuse on council discourages women from running.
“For the past four years, I've been trying to encourage women to run for council. I really believe it is important that we be represented,” she said. “I am grateful that we have five strong women who have agreed to put their names forward (in this election).
"During my first term, particularly, I was the subject of bullying from another member of council ... at one point I had people yelling at me on the phone and outside my home, and then we wonder why it is so difficult to get women to run,” Hehn said. “It took guts and determination to get through that first term of council."
Other members of council supported Hehn’s sentiments.
“I couldn't agree more with Coun. Hehn,” said Coun. Mason Ainsworth. “It is brutal, the things that people say, and it's important that we step up, and knowing a lot of staff and other municipalities, it is awful out there, so this needs to get passed.”
Coun. Tim Lauer questioned whether a technical definition of harassment exists.
“Is there such a thing, or is that a discretionary call of whoever's adjudicating?” he asked.
However, staff did not have an answer for Lauer during the meeting.
“I will certainly talk to the city's health and safety officer, and look up the legislation and provide the contingent definition,” said general manager of corporate services/city solicitor Amanpreet Sidhu.