Nanaimo’s city manager Tracy Samra made changes to internal procedures to make complaints about herself go to one of her staff rather than to the mayor or an independent agency, News Nanaimo has confirmed.
The changes, which raise questions of the integrity of the city’s process for handling complaints about its top manager, were made without council approval or agreement of the city’s biggest union.
News Nanaimo has also received serious allegations that complaints involving Ms. Samra and certain councillors have not been handled properly. We are not publishing details at this time to protect the complainants.
On Friday, Ms. Samra defended her decision to change the respectful workplace policy procedures in April this year. She said the previous requirement for complaints about the CAO to go to the mayor did not ensure a fair process given her fractious relationship with mayor Bill McKay.
Asked why she chose to steer complaints about herself to a subordinate rather than an outside party such as a law firm, Ms. Samra said the individual designated to receive complaints has “no decision making role.”
Complaints that are not resolved internally are handled by an independent investigator who reports findings to council, she said.
News Nanaimo was told that the policy was changed again on Dec. 1 to restore the mayor to receive complaints about the city manager.
However, Ms. Samra would only say that the city “completed an update of the policy upon legal review and consultation with CUPE Local 401.”
Staff protest “fear and vitriol”
The news comes after months of simmering staff discontent boiled over this week when almost 500 members of the city’s biggest union boycotted the annual year-end lunch for employees.
In a hard-hitting interview with NanaimoNewsNow, CUPE Local 401 president Blaine Gurrie described a culture of “fear and vitriol” where employees fear they will become targets if they file complaints.
He said morale was the worst it has been in 20 years, with staff feeling they have nowhere to turn.
A spokesperson for WorkSafeBC said on Friday: “It is illegal for an employer to penalize workers for raising health or safety issues.”
He said his agency’s role was “to ensure that employers have proper policies and procedures in place to address bullying and harassment, and that complaints are investigated and addressed.”
Anonymous survey required
Mr. Gurrie called on council to order an independent survey of union and non-union employees with guarantees of anonymity to gather their views on the city’s leadership.
So far, only Mr. McKay and councillors Diane Brennan and Sheryl Armstrong have expressed support for the union’s request. All other councillors failed to respond to requests for comment.
The week’s events represent the deepest crisis of confidence yet for the five-man majority and their choice of city manager.
Key majority members Bill Bestwick and Bill Yoachim are under intense pressure to choose between continuing to back Ms. Samra and keeping important union support in next year’s election.
Neither man would answer questions this week, but it is understood that Mr. Bestwick has been shaken by the union’s protest.
Any split in the majority bloc that has controlled council since 2015 will leave Ms. Samra vulnerable to being ousted by a majority vote.
Battling on with publicity blitz
Meanwhile, Ms. Samra and her staunchest supporters appeared determined to battle on by trying to combat negative publicity and criticism with a publicity push of their own.
However, even that did not go well when they found themselves on the defensive again over misleading media statements and charges of providing fake news.
An ambiguous comment in a city press release issued late Friday forced the city’s only newspaper, the Nanaimo News Bulletin, to issue a correction after it published an article on its website based on the information.
The article claimed that city executives had held talks with union leaders on Friday after the staff lunch boycott.
However, the newspaper had to retract the story when Mr. Gurrie informed them there had been no meeting as suggested in the city’s press release.
The city itself did not clarify its misleading statement, which was attributed to Ms. Samra.
Taking credit of another councillor’s initiative
Meanwhile, majority member Jerry Hong, who in another city news release on Friday claimed to have advocated “for years” for tighter controls on staff spending, showed that he didn’t know what the existing policies were.
And it was revealed that Ms. Samra and Mr. Hong had not actually initiated the review of staff spending policies as portrayed in the city’s news release.
The impetus came from Ms. Armstrong in response to a News Nanaimo article about senior staff expenses, but she was given no credit.
Faking news to fit narrative
On social media, a handful of council majority supporters fought to combat widespread criticism. They posted counter arguments, deflected blame to previous managers and attacked the credibility of their opponents.
But things went awry when prominent majority supporter Tim McGrath was caught fabricating a news quote to show members of the majority in a more favorable light.
He edited a paragraph he posted from a news story to remove mention that majority members Mr. Bestwick and Mr. Yoachim had taken money from CUPE in the 2014 election.
An earlier version of this article had the incorrect date for when the respectful workplace policy was updated to again require the mayor to receive complaints about the city manager. It was Friday December 1, 2017, not December 8. We regret the error.