CAO tells council meeting about a summary chart, but city says it “does not exist”

Recriminations fly as we ask why Tracy Samra's statements in council meeting cannot be substantiated by staff search for records
Nanaimo’s top manager Tracy Samra found herself in the spotlight yesterday after it emerged that claims she made in a public council meeting cannot be substantiated by city staff.

Meanwhile, when News Nanaimo started asking questions about the issue, one councillor lashed out saying he felt a case could be made against us and others for “ongoing harassment.” Another councillor questioned our reporter’s credentials “in this country.”

The controversy revolves around statements Ms. Samra, the city’s chief administrative officer, made at the July 11, 2016 council meeting during a discussion about the city’s controversial new committee structure.

CAO Tracy Samra at the council meeting July 11. Said there was a summary chart and she had discussed it with staff.
CAO Tracy Samra at the council meeting July 11. She said there was a summary chart and she had discussed it with staff.

Ms. Samra told the meeting she had used responses to a survey of existing committee members to help inform decisions on the new structure, which cut 11 committees down to six.

At one point in the meeting, Ms. Samra read out a number of questions from the survey to counter complaints that the city had failed to consult committee members on the new structure.

While talking about one question that asked committee members to agree or disagree that they received adequate direction from council on its priorities, Ms. Samra said: “We got a lot of disagrees on that one, but I haven’t done the summary of all the different surveys for you.”

“There’s a summary chart, I just don’t have it with me”

A short while later, Councillor Diane Brennan asked Ms. Samra about the survey results. The following is a transcript of the exchange between the two (italics added):

Councillor Brennan:  I have one question for staff, that is, I’m not sure I heard correctly, but Ms. Samra did you say you hadn’t had an opportunity to tabulate the responses from committee members?

Ms. Samra: Mr. Seward (a former senior director at the city who left in June) did that and there’s a summary chart and I just, I don’t have it with me.

Councillor Brennan: But you reviewed it?

Ms. Samra: They reviewed it. That was Ms…, yeah, a couple people worked on it.

Councillor Brennan: So it was used to put this together?

Ms. Samra: Yes, and discussed with staff, yes.

Councillor Brennan: Okay.

You can hear a video recording of the above exchange on the city’s website.

Councillor Diane Brennan at the July 11 council meeting. Asked about tabulated survey results.
Councillor Diane Brennan at the July 11 council meeting. Asked about tabulated survey results.

Freedom of information request comes up empty

According to emails seen by News Nanaimo, the following day local businessman Don Bonner made a freedom of information request for the returned survey results and “the report on the returned surveys.”

More than a month later, on August 17, the city’s Freedom of Information head Sheila Gurrie responded to Mr. Bonner saying the city could not provide the returned survey forms for privacy reasons.

However, the letter said nothing about his request for the summary report.

On August 19, Mr. Bonner asked Ms. Gurrie via email about the summary report he had requested.

That same morning Ms. Gurrie replied in an email: “There has been no report completed.  I have confirmed this with Staff, and I checked the video as well.  From the portion of the video I listened to, Ms. Samra said there wasn’t one; regardless, there isn’t a summary report of the surveys at this time.”

Two hours later, Mr. Bonner emailed back to say he had reviewed the video of the meeting and Ms. Samra mentioned a “summary chart” and could he have that.

“The record therefore ‘does not exist’.”

Four days later, on August 23, Mr. Bonner followed up with Ms. Gurrie to see if she had found the summary chart he asked for.

Her response was emphatic: “The only ‘summary’ was the total received and the percentage of responses that Mr. Seward had noted prior to his departure. The record therefore ‘does not exist’.”

Email from city’s FOI head Sheila Gurrie saying the summary chart Mr. Bonner asked for “does not exist”

The next day, Mr. Bonner emailed Ms. Samra directly to ask if the chart existed and if he could have a copy.

Ms. Samra’s response was: “Mr. Bonner, I am referring your email back to our FOI head.”

Mr. Bonner then emailed all council members, explaining what had happened and asking, “If the chart doesn’t exist as Ms Gurrie has stated why did the CAO say it did?  If it doesn’t exist what did Staff use to review the new committee structure as was stated at the meeting?”

According to Mr. Bonner, he received no reply to his email to council and on Monday contacted local media, including News Nanaimo, to see if we could get answers.

Samra avoids direct questions

Yesterday morning, News Nanaimo emailed Ms. Samra to ask about the discrepancy between her statements to the council meeting and Ms. Gurrie’s conclusion that the summary chart does not exist.

In an email copied to all of council, she responded with one line: “Your email is being forwarded to FOI (Freedom of Information) for processing.”

We did not ask Ms. Samra for any records, which is the only time a public body should treat questions as an FOI request. Ms. Samra has responded similarly to other recent questions we have put to council members.

Consequently, we informed Ms. Samra that her response was a refusal to answer a direct question and that we would file a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) about the inappropriate use of freedom of information legislation to avoid answering direct questions.

News Nanaimo also contacted all council members yesterday asking two questions:

  1. What is council’s response to the information in Mr. Bonner’s email? What action, if any, is council considering in this regard?
  2. What are individual council members’ views with respect to the information Mr. Bonner has sent to council?

Two councillors emailed us, but neither responded to the questions we directed to them.

“You may be the respondent … in the ongoing harassment”

Jim Kipp: lashed out claiming harassment

Councillor Jim Kipp wrote the following:

IMHO you may be the respondent along with others in the ongoing harassment, just saying.  And thanks for the quotes on “Bitter”, I look forward to the news and journalistic excellence with the splash of opinion that this and other news sites extol.

Below is an excellent government document that I have embedded a portion of that really suits my opinion

Is it Harassment? A Tool to Guide Employees

What criteria have to be met to establish whether there was harassment?

Harassment is serious. To substantiate harassment allegations, it must be demonstrated that, according to the balance of probability:

*   The respondent displayed an improper and offensive conduct including objectionable acts, comments or displays, or acts of intimidation or threats, or acts, comments or displays in relation to a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act<>;

*   The behaviour was directed at the complainant;

*   The complainant was offended or harmed, including the feeling of being demeaned, belittled, personally humiliated or embarrassed, intimidated or threatened;

*   The respondent knew or reasonably ought to have known that such behaviour would cause offence or harm;

*   The behaviour occurred in the workplace or at any location or any event related to work, including while on travel status, at a conference where attendance is sponsored by the employer, at employer sponsored training activities/information sessions and at employer sponsored events, including social events; and

*   There was a series of incidents or one severe incident which had a lasting impact on the individual. Note that in the case of sexual harassment particularly, a single incident may be viewed to be more significant in circumstances when your relationship at work is one where the respondent has influence or power over you with regard to career advancement, performance review, absenteeism, day to day management of activities, work assignments and the carrying out of progressive disciplinary measures.

In order to make a finding of harassment, each of the above elements must be present. If even one of these elements cannot be proven, there will not likely be a finding of harassment.

JK remote”

News Nanaimo responded to Councillor Kipp saying we had asked fair and legitimate questions as a member of the media, to which his response had been to threaten us in an entirely inappropriate manner. We said he was an elected official, and Ms. Samra is a public figure by virtue of holding the highest office in the city administration, one which is paid by the taxpayers. As such, both are accountable to the public and to fair scrutiny. Our request for comment was in keeping with their right of reply.

Councillor Kipp then wrote back saying:

Gord Fuller: asked about credentials "in this country."
Gord Fuller: asked about credentials “in this country.”

“Please read your own comments and mine again, then explain threats from me?  as you talk filing complaints, you have been so inappropriate as a self proclaimed journalist writing an opinion blog and have threatened investigations from election scandals onward.  And you think you should get some entitled respect from myself and others, really?

So please continue to include me in your current complaints and demands.  As for accurate and fair, the records an manifests will be the determining factors.

JK remote”

Later, Councillor Gord Fuller emailed his thoughts:

“Just a thought but as you state you are a member of the ‘media’ what exactly are your credentials for claiming such in this country?  My request for comment is fair and in keeping with your right of reply.”

Our response was to inform Councillor Fuller that News Nanaimo is a media outlet just like any other in the city and operates according to good journalistic practices, including offering subjects of its stories the opportunity to respond to direct questions, which no council member had done.

At the time of writing, there was still no proper response from any council member to our questions.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Going forward, News Nanaimo will continue to seek comment despite a near complete breakdown of meaningful communication from certain officials and councillors at City Hall.

However, future responses, if any, will only be reported where they are germane, as is standard practice for all media outlets.