There’s a problem that has been facing municipal politicians and senior staff for a long time now, and it is something taxpayers know very little about. This ignorance is at the root of the problem, and it is timely, during a municipal election campaign, to talk about it openly.
Every now and then, we hear about the sudden departure from office of some member of staff in a municipality. Often, the person is a senior member, even a Director or a CAO at times. Sometimes we get a short announcement from the municipality in question stating that the individual “is no longer with the municipality”, but just as often their departure goes unnoticed and unreported. There are often legal reasons why someone in a senior position leaving their job is left without any comment by their previous employers. Provincial legislation guarantees privacy for personnel, and municipalities are required to maintain a strict silence on the details surrounding such departures. That is understandable, and the individual’s right to privacy is vital in most cases.
But there are occasions when that right to privacy conflicts with the public’s need and right to know, especially when it comes to public employees and the reasons for their departure from municipal employment. This has been the case in a few cases recently in both North Grenville and Merrickville-Wolford, among others. Of course, most of these moves away from working in one place to take a position in another are straightforward and are simply career moves by the individual looking to improve their job prospects, or to take on a higher position in another municipality, or in the private sector. This is something that is common to all workers, in whatever sphere of activity.
But there are also cases where the departure is not by mutual consent, where, to put it bluntly, an employee is fired, let go, because of some infraction of municipal regulations, or even of the law. It doesn’t seem to matter: in all cases, privacy is the paramount concern and the details of each case remains strictly confidential. And here is where the problem lies for all of us.
Where there is improper, or even potentially criminal behaviour by a staff member, both members of council and municipal staff are under a legal obligation to discuss the issues in closed meetings and not to give any details to the public. It is not always easy to find proof of wrongdoing by individuals, and even when that proof is found, it is not a simple thing to remove the culprit from office. Legislation has been put in place over many years to protect workers from arbitrary action on the part of employers. It is only right that people be protected in their workplace from unfair and vindictive action by bosses who might want to fire them for personal reasons, reasons of spite, jealousy, or other reasons that have nothing to do with the worker’s productivity or professionalism.
But that same legislation puts a gag on employers who have to get rid of individuals who thoroughly deserve to be fired, for whatever reason. And the problem that arises is that the person who has properly earned dismissal can then go to another municipality or company and get a job without their new employer ever knowing why they left their previous position, or even that they had been fired. Even worse, part of the confidentiality surrounding their departure may include a financial package, compensation for the loss of their job. No-one is allowed say that it has been arranged, and the taxpayers in that community cannot even be told that their taxes are being used to “buy off” someone who has been fired. That is the law as it stands.
Municipalities can also become very reluctant to talk about the departure of a staff member, even if there was no question or hint of wrongdoing on their part. Rather be safe by saying nothing, than risk being sued for breaching privacy. But the overall result of this is that the law is protecting guilty people who have been fired with good cause. It also allows those parties to get work elsewhere, preventing the new employer from being warned about what and who they’re taking on. This is unfair to absolutely everyone, except, of course, for the guilty party.
No-one knows if, or how often, this kind of thing has happened in this, or any other, community. That’s the point and the problem. The law is protecting the miscreant, sometimes even the criminal.
Can anything be done about this? Perhaps our new Minister for Municipal Affairs, Steve Clark, could raise this with his new staff and his boss, Doug Ford. There may be amendments to be made to the relevant legislation that would protect the taxpayers and municipal staff, rather than the ones who now benefit from it and use it to find new areas in which to exercise their “talents”. At the very least, can we not get to the point where employers can refuse to write letters of recommendation for people they have fired? Can we not be informed, as citizens and taxpayers that someone has left our employment (for we are the ones who pay these salaries and compensation payments), that there is a confidentiality deal in place following someone’s departure?
Privacy is one thing, and a very important thing too; but when it allows individuals to abuse our trust and damage us in any way, surely there must be a balance found between their privacy concerns and the proper right of the public to know what’s happening in their community? Do the current crop of candidates have any thoughts on this? Some of them, I’m sure, have had reason to ponder the problem.