News Nanaimo has learned that the city manager fired a pregnant staff member within hours of her filing respectful workplace complaints against Ms.Samra, Mr. Bestwick and councillor Bill Yoachim.
It is also alleged that Ms. Samra created such a dysfunctional working environment that former chief operations officer Brad McRae was forced to take medical leave three times in his first year at the city.
On one occasion workplace stress contributed to him collapsing at work requiring staff to call emergency services and have Mr. McRae rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The ambulance bill was later charged to his expenses.
The allegations of a toxic work environment are likely to loom large in legal actions that could cost the city’s taxpayers large sums in lost income and potential damage awards to affected former staff.
They also raise serious questions about the management of the city’s human resources function.
‘My rights were violated’
Mr. McRae disclosed to media this week that he has filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal seeking his job back, lost wages and damages for alleged mistreatment.
“My rights were violated under both the Human Rights Code and the Community Charter by the city holding a termination hearing in my absence after I was not cleared medically to attend,” Mr. McRae said, refusing to provide further details.
His complaint follows that of former bylaws manager Rod Davidson, who has filed a civil claim against the city alleging his firing was designed to deny him a better pension and other benefits.
Mr. Davidson is asking the court to award aggravated damages. The city has not yet responded to the complaint in court.
News Nanaimo has learned that Mr. McRae’s firing is linked to several councillors raising concerns last November about potential cost overruns and changes to the city’s garbage automation project.
The project, which had important union backing, had been approved at an in-camera meeting on March 27, 2017 by a vote of 4-3, with councillors Jim Kipp, Jerry Hong and Gord Fuller voting against it. Councillors Ian Thorpe and Wendy Pratt were absent.
Also at that meeting were CUPE Local 401 president Blaine Gurrie and Charlotte Davis, the city’s manager of sanitation, recycling and public works administration, who was the principal internal lead on the automation project.
It is understood that Mr. McRae was absent from the meeting because he was away on a break.
The initial capital costs for eight new garbage trucks and 72,000 new bins was estimated at $7.4 million, which would be recovered through rate increases. However, over time automation was expected to save taxpayers almost $1 million annually and lead to lower future garbage fees while cutting worker injuries and improving the service.
But as the complex project was implemented, Ms. Davis adjusted the plan, adding 4,000 more bins and changing the mix of trucks to be ordered to match expected future growth in the city’s customer base.
The changes meant a potential $450,000 increase in the project’s capital costs, but no impact on individual user rates due to a higher customer count. It was also said that after rebates on the trucks and actual roll-out of the bins, there might not be any cost increases.
The increased bin order was public knowledge when the city issued a request for proposals (RFP) on May 19, 2017. It is understood that Ms. Davis obtained approval to expand the order from the city’s finance department, including final sign-off from chief financial officer Victor Mema.
The RFP, which was awarded to Rehrig Pacific Company in late-July 2017, was to both manufacture the bins and deliver them to households. However, the RFP did not include a “minimum rate of pay” clause, which requires contractors to pay their workers union pay rates as stipulated in the city’s collective agreement with CUPE Local 401.
‘Shit kicked without mercy’
By late-October, councillors who voted against the garbage automation plan seized upon the budget increases as evidence they were right. Behind the scenes, they questioned how staff could make the changes without council approval. Insubordination was suggested. Ms. Samra, back at work after going on medical leave for five months, asked staff for a report.
However, it was the delivery of bins by non-union workers and the lack of a “minimum rate of pay” clause in the RFP that attracted the most ire. That issue was taken up by Mr. Bestwick, who received donations of $4,500 from CUPE sources in the 2014 election, and Bill Yoachim, who got $6,000 from CUPE sources.
At an open council meeting on Nov. 20, 2017, Mr. Bestwick made a motion demanding a report on who had been hired to deliver the bins. He wanted a hard deadline of “48 hours, two business days” for staff to give him the report, but agreed to Ms. Samra’s suggestion that it be provided at a scheduled finance and audit committee meeting three days later.
At the committee meeting on Nov. 23, staff presented councillors with a report supporting the changes to the project. Mr. McRae’s name was on the report even though he had little direct involvement with the project.
Ms. Davis came under fire from councillors at the meeting. She defended her decisions and said she had followed internal procedures by working with the finance and purchasing departments. At one point, she suggested that Ms. Samra had also been aware of the need for changes.
Coun. Bill Yoachim asked about the RFP and the bin delivery, saying that the workers “definitely weren’t union guys in my driveway.” He was told that issue would be discussed in-camera because it involved a labour issue.
Said a source: “What you saw in public was nothing like what was going on behind the scenes. It was brutal, Charlotte was shit kicked without mercy.”
Terminated by courier
A few days after that meeting, both Mr. McRae and Ms. Davis, who was known to be pregnant, went on stress-related medical leave.
On Nov. 30, Ms. Davis filed respectful workplace complaints against Ms. Samra, Mr. Bestwick and Mr. Yoachim with the city’s human resources department. Previous city policy would have required Ms. Davis to make her complaint about Ms. Samra to the mayor, but Ms. Samra had unilaterally changed the process to make complaints about herself go to human resources director John Van Horne, her subordinate.
A few hours after making her complaint, Ms. Davis received a termination notice at home delivered by courier, sources say.
Asked about these events this week, Ms. Davis declined to comment. The city’s human resources director John Van Horne was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Mr. Yoachim said he was unaware that Ms. Davis had filed a complaint against him and denied being disrespectful to her. Mr. Bestwick did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Meanwhile, on the same day, Nov. 30, Ms. Samra also informed Mr. McRae, who was on medical leave, that she would be recommending to council that they fire him for cause over the garbage automation cost overruns. That meant he would not be entitled to the minimum six months severance required under the city’s bylaws.
Under provincial law, as an officer of the city Mr. McRae could only be terminated for cause by five members of council after they had given him an opportunity to be heard. To receive severance would take six votes. It is understood that a termination hearing was scheduled for mid-December.
Coming on the heels of the terminations of former sustainability director Kim Fowler, communications director Philip Cooper and bylaws manager Mr. Davidson, the sudden axing of Ms. Davis and Mr. McRae sent reverberations throughout the ranks of city staff.
On Dec. 7, most of the city’s unionized workers boycotted the city’s annual Christmas lunch to protest the culture of “fear and vitriol” at the city. Union president Mr. Gurrie gave a surprisingly forthright interview to NanaimoNewsNOW that blindsided Ms. Samra and her council supporters, especially Mr. Bestwick.
Seeking to defuse staff dissatisfaction, Ms. Samra rehired Ms. Davis without acknowledging she had been wrong to fire her. It is not known what happened to the workplace complaints Ms. Davis filed.
Sacked without severance
Mr. McRae’s termination hearing with council in mid-December was rescheduled on his doctor’s advice and a new date set for Jan. 10. It is understood that Mr. McRae suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, which was known to the city.
However, the day before the Jan. 10 hearing, Mr. McRae notified the city that his doctor wanted him to wait another week before attending the hearing. Despite being aware of this, council proceeded with the hearing the next day without him.
The vote was 5-4, with councillors Bestwick, Yoachim, Kipp, Hong and Fuller voting to terminate him for cause and no severance.
Last Friday, Mr. McRae filed a complaint with the human rights tribunal claiming that council violated his rights and seeking an order for his reinstatement. It will likely be months before the outcome is known.
Through her lawyer, Ms. Samra declined comment for this article.