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This is why Nanaimo city manager Tracy Samra is refusing to attend question period

She claims questions from public could create a “toxic” work environment for staff -- but city admits it has no record of staff complaints
Nanaimo’s controversial city manager Tracy Samra is refusing to attend council meeting question period because residents could potentially create a toxic work environment for herself and staff.

But the city’s HR Director John Van Horne admitted to News Nanaimo that the city has no record of staff complaining about the public’s behaviour at council meetings in the past year.

Tracy Samra at Nanaimo council meeting October 30, 2017
Ms. Samra speaks at Nanaimo city council meeting on October 30, 2017

Despite this, Mr. Van Horne justified the city manager’s unusual decision saying the city “should not just be waiting for complaints to come in” and “should be active and avoid situations that are likely to adversely impact staff’s workplace, much as with other workplace health and safety issues.”

The city manager’s moves to change question period practices are unpopular with some councillors and many citizens who watch or attend council meetings.

Councillors Sheryl Armstrong and Diane Brennan say they want council to formally review the issue.

About-face for Samra

The question period changes are an abrupt change in direction for Ms. Samra, who previously seemed to condone meetings being disrupted by supporters of the five-man council majority she is aligned with.

At several past meetings, including where security was called to eject a resident, Ms. Samra has intervened to allow the citizens to continue, over the mayor’s objections.

But in recent weeks the city manager has become increasingly tetchy with delegates and residents who have stepped up to address councillors or to ask questions critical of her and the council majority.

At Monday’s council meeting, she interrupted a resident’s presentation before he could speak about an incident July 26 where Ms. Samra was placed on leave after reportedly shouting “you’re all motherf***ers” as she left a closed door council meeting.

The July 26 meeting dealt with the findings of a workplace bullying and harassment complaint she had filed. According to the Globe and Mail, which received a copy of the confidential report, the independent investigator, lawyer Roslyn Goldner, did not uphold Ms. Samra’s complaint.

Pushing the limits

Ms. Samra returned  to her $205,000-per-year job on Sept. 18 after a majority of councillors gave her a letter expressing “regret for the deterioration in relationships” and committing to “take steps to foster a positive working environment.”

Since resuming work, Ms. Samra, whose contract with the city expires on March 6, 2020, has seemed intent on pushing the limits on council’s commitment to create a positive work environment.

She has been quick to react to even the slightest perceived criticism of herself and other city staff.

Jim Kipp: forced to apologize

At a committee of the whole meeting last week, councillor Jim Kipp made a grovelling apology to Ms. Samra after he commented that she was talking too much and telling him things he already knew. (video)

Councillor Bill Bestwick, the leader of the five-man majority who engineered Ms. Samra’s hiring, has been seen to leave the council meeting room to avoid confrontations with her.

Ms. Samra has also been quick to accuse residents of breaching the city’s respectful workplace policy.

In one instance she accused prominent council critic Don Bonner of breaching the policy merely for asking if a “most excellent presentation by staff on the exodus of staff” from the city would be posted online (video).

Crackdown slammed

Ms. Samra’s crackdown on question period started October 16 when she stunned councillors and the public by imposing a new rule that very evening forcing residents to submit their questions for approval by staff.

This requirement was slammed as “irregular and inappropriate” by Dermod Travis, executive director of non-profit political watchdog IntegrityBC.

The legality of the new screening is also doubtful as changes to meeting procedures can only be made by council after advertising them for two weeks in a newspaper.

And while Ms. Samra claimed the change was needed to make meetings “more efficient,” it has led to a new five-minute recess being imposed for staff to review and approve questions.

Nanaimo's new question period form
City staff’s new question period form requires a clear outline of each question.

Councillors want review

But it’s the decision to remove staff from the council chamber during question period that has provoked the strongest reaction and bemusement.

Initially, staff vacating the council room for question period was said to be because the session is intended for the public to ask questions of council members, not staff.

Mr. Van Horne, the HR director, also made this point, adding that “chasing down information (for residents) diverts scarce resources.”

Sheryl Armstrong
Sheryl Armstrong

However, he did not respond to a follow up question asking where it’s written that only councillors can answer questions from the public at council meetings. The council’s procedure bylaw makes no mention of this.

Now Ms. Armstrong, the newest member of council, says she will ask her colleagues to review the recent changes to question period.

“I want to discuss how it is progressing or not progressing depending on your viewpoint. Can it be tweaked, etc.,” she said via email.

Councillor Brennan, who at a recent council meeting called the changes an overreaction, said she also wants the matter reviewed by council.

Legal questions

Ultimately, the fate of question period at Nanaimo council may come down to legal necessity.

Residents’ questions are unlikely to be answered adequately by councillors alone, which could expose the city to liability if they give out bad information.

It’s also unclear if the city clerk can certify minutes as complete if she is not physically in the room at all times.

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  • Nice to see you back and firing on all cylinders. People who think that the stifling of valid taxpayer questions is required to protect the delicate sensibilities of city staff need a refresher course on basic democracy.

  • I wonder if council regrets making a hiring of a city manager without a job competition? They should. There is good reason to hold job competitions for such high profile positions. I have seen more than enough unruly behaviour in council chambers and have been surprised by the lack of enforcement available to the chair to keep meetings orderly. Questions from the public are an essential part of democracy. It is a pity the “Fab Five” created dissent with their unfounded accusations against the mayor. They should be forced to pay the costs of the RCMP investigation.

    • To my knowledge Ms Samra has been the only city manager of the past three that was the result of a competition. The previous three were all coronated by the outgoing managers.

      • They were nominated from withing the city administration. Tracy Samra was hired from outside, without competition to a temporary position, then confirmed to the permanent status without any real contest. Correct me if I am wrong.

    • I prefer to call them the “fearsome fivesome”. The CEO needs to study the Local Government Act and the Community Charter. Question Period, after the Council Meetings, often assists Council to consider our residents concerns. Staff, if they are present, may be able to address and explain issues raised without needed input from Council – or they can take residents issues back to staff for explanation or investigation, and then report back to Council. Ms Samra has removed many managers that had important history and experience working for the City. I understand Ms. Samra’s need to show her power in the position, however I believe that some of her decisions have negatively affected both City Council and City Staff. Please reflect on the negativity and concerns of our citizens. They are the ones who need assurance that the City is working for them – not against them!

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