Tehkummah dismisses clerk

Former Tehkummah Clerk-Treasurer Karen Gerrard, standing in background, addresses council before she was suspended with pay late last year. Expositor file photo photo by Alicia McCutcheon

TEHKUMMAH–Karen Gerrard, clerk-treasurer for the Township of Tehkummah was informed of her termination, effective June 5, by courier.

The letter, signed by Reeve Eric Russell, stated, “This will serve to confirm notice that your employment with the Township of Tehkummah is terminated effective immediately for reasons of which you are aware since at least last October 2017 and have made a number of attempts to prevent us from exercising our right to terminate our employment relationship.”

(Editor’s note: Only the above portion of the termination letter was provided to The Expositor).

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October 2017 is when Ms. Gerrard moved boxes of municipal records marked for storage to a secure off-site location, under the authority of the Municipal Act, 2001 and Tehkummah’s Records Retention Bylaw 2016-12.  The township responded with a letter stating the removal of municipal records was without authority and requesting their immediate return.

The township letter to Ms. Gerrard noted they would “seek our full rights in law should you fail to return the Township property immediately.”

Ms. Gerrard told The Expositor she felt threatened by this and contacted the Ministry of Labour for guidance. The ministry ordered an investigation into the complaint of workplace harassment on October 30 with Ms. Gerrard as complainant and five members of council and municipal staff as respondents.

“I had inherited a municipal governance and administration that did not know their roles and responsibilities and existed in a culture of toxic chaos, without clear procedures and policies in place to guide their actions,” explained Ms. Gerrard. “This was evidenced by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (and Housing) report which was presented (to council) in April 2018.”

“As I questioned how things were done,” she continued, “people became intimidated, felt threatened and then became defensive, attacking my credibility and integrity. Many municipal administrators are subjected to workplace harassment by council members yet there is no real mechanism to address and resolve the situation. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs can only make recommendations. They no longer have the oversight powers they once had where, if there were systemic problems, the ministry would abolish council or administration, or both, and appoint persons to run the municipality.”

“My concern is to have a safe and healthy workplace for all municipal employees,” said Ms. Gerrard. “I want to be able to show up to work without fear of intimidation, degradation of character, attacks on my integrity and threats of termination.”

Tehkummah council appointed DRC Performance Management as third party investigator. A summary investigation report, completed by DRC on February 6, 2018, including finding and remedies, was forwarded to Ms. Gerrard on March 21. “On reading the summary investigation report,” wrote Reeve Russell, “you will note and should appreciate the remedies will involve some time to make arrangements for its implementation. Once we have made the necessary arrangements you will be contacted to engage in the stipulated applicable remedies. In the interim, you will remain on suspension with pay such as to avoid your having to operate in a workplace without the Township addressing your concerns, the culture and interpersonal dynamics of the organization through setting the groundwork for the implementation of the remedies set out in the summary investigation report attached. Once we have set the groundwork for change we will contact you to meet with council to review what has been done, council’s expectations and what needs to be done going forward.”

The report recommended that each party take a refresher course on workplace harassment; that each party take a course on communication and working respectfully in concert with others; that there be an orientation for council members on how to deal with inappropriate comments and behaviour from the public; and that township policies on harassment and workplace violence be posted in the council meeting room.

The report also stated, with respect to the allegations in (unnamed) Respondents 1 and 2, “We believe it is clear that the parties in question have exceeded their respective jurisdictions in crossing over into the boundaries of the other without a clear directive from council – these roles must be clearly explained; processes defined and communication protocol established by processing clear delineated job descriptions of clerk/treasurer; administrative assistant as well as the role of council, particularly in its relationship with and to staff.”

At a May 30, 2018 mediation meeting attended by the Ontario Labour Relations Board mediation officer, Ms. Gerrard, the five respondents and their lawyer, “the respondents were not willing to address the workplace issues but would rather terminate my employment, saying I am the problem,” said Ms. Gerrard.

“I have tried to retain my optimism, fortitude and mental strength throughout this ordeal that has been carrying on for many, many months,” she continued. “Learning that the employer (respondents) did not have any intentions of following through their remedies, nor any intention of even considering a workplace restoration program for all employees nor taking responsibility for ensuring a safe and healthy workplace for all employees but rather that they wanted to terminate my employment was the tipping point for me.”

Ms. Gerrard was put on medical leave effective June 1. The mediator advised her that it was council’s intent to pass a motion of termination at the June 5, 2018 council meeting. An in camera session was held at the end of the June 5 meeting following dismissal of attendees.

The termination letter was dated June 5, 2018 and received June 7. Ms. Gerrard has been directed to return municipal property, “yet there is no provision as to how I am to get my personal items,” she said. “The council for the Township of Tehkummah has mishandled the complaint into workplace harassment,” she alleges.

Ms. Gerrard is currently reviewing her options. Should she decide to pursue wrongful dismissal action there will likely be additional costs to Tehkummah ratepayers. She is willing to return to the position of clerk-treasurer, however. “During the 15 months that I have been the clerk-treasurer, I have developed and implemented 44 measures which have decreased risk, minimized liability and increased accountability and transparency,” she added, noting that she would like the opportunity to address deficiencies and to help promote the positive image of the municipality.

“Council still has an opportunity to rescind a motion of termination,” said Ms. Gerrard.

Reeve Eric Russell was not able to comment at this time as “everything is not finalized.” He has invited The Expositor to visit the municipal office to review all documentation upon conclusion of this matter.

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