Municipal staff

Drawing the Line: Protecting City Staff and Council from Harassment – Discrimination, Disability and Sexual Harassment

A real tale. Ken (pseudonym) resided in a rural municipality (it could just as well have been an urban municipality). Ken attended a series of in-person and online seminars. He subscribed to podcasts. He learns there, from people who are very sure of themselves, and for a fee that seems reasonable to him, that he is not subject to any laws (especially those he does not like), whether these laws are federal , provincial or municipal. After all, he was (so he was told) a “free man” or a “sensitive man”, or some other catchy title. He also learned to string weird grammars, Latin phrases, and American legal terms together in nonsensical ways and those words would convince everyone of his immunity. It was such an enticing record that Ken actually believed it to be true (for a real education on this worldview, check out the Alberta court ruling in Meads v. Meads).

Ken built a house on his land. He didn’t get a building permit. Why should he? When the municipality began proceedings to enforce its building by-law, Ken was not amused at all. He became extremely disrespectful to the OAC and city staff. He refused to speak to the employees of the municipality. Things got even worse. He threatened the CAO and staff to use guns and other weapons. To help convince city staff that they were wrong and he was right, he began sending anonymous packages to the city office; no one thought they were gifts.

Ken was banned from attending all municipal buildings. He was not allowed to contact staff. All communication from Ken had to go through the OAC (phone or email). The RCMP were made aware of his behavior and were very interested. All future municipal interactions between Ken and the municipality took place in the presence of the RCMP.

Ken’s story is not unique. The details and severity of harassment vary. Anecdotally, it seems to be getting more common. The real story is: what can a municipality do to protect its staff and council from people like Ken?

Stay in control of meetings and hearings

The procedure by-law should set out the rules for how a resident may appear before a committee of council, a regular meeting of council or a public hearing as a participant or as a delegation. Requires prior registration. Time limits may be set for presentations. The board may limit the number of speakers or take those who have something new to add. The board may require that briefing materials on the matter be presented to management for distribution to the board a number of days prior to the meeting. Begin public participation by stating the rules: general courtesy, speaking order, if the board asks any questions, time limits, and presenter limits. Council and committee meetings and public hearings function for the governance of the municipality; they should never degenerate into an every man for himself.

Article 152(2) of the The Municipalities Act allows the chair of a board or committee meeting to expel a person from the meeting for improper conduct. Before expelling someone from a meeting, the chair should firmly demand that the person behave properly and warn them that any other inappropriate behavior will result in their expulsion from the meeting. Document the warnings in the meeting minutes.

Board members should know the rules (Robert’s Rules or otherwise) adopted by the procedure by-law. If the chair of the meeting lets things get out of hand, a motion to end discussion, a motion to table the matter, or even a motion to adjourn the meeting may be necessary.

Warning letters and restricted access

When individuals behave disrespectfully or threaten staff or council, immediate action should be taken. Administration (or legal counsel) should issue a warning letter. The letter should detail the time, location and facts surrounding the incident. The letter should be sent to the person by email, regular and registered mail to ensure delivery.

Suppose the warning letter is ignored and the harassment or threats continue. In this case, the administration (with input from council if necessary) should consider restricting access to the municipal office or even all municipal buildings. Other provisions may be provided to enable them to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression granted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and be heard by their elected officials. Examples include making written submissions to the board or attending a meeting remotely.

Be reasonable. There is a legitimate right to be heard and to protest. Something that makes people uncomfortable (like even a loud picket on a sidewalk or public parking lot) doesn’t necessarily mean harassment or a threat.

The Trespass Law

If a person does not leave the premises after being informed that he is not authorized to enter, he will be in violation The Trespass Law. Law enforcement can be contacted to evict and, if necessary, arrest the individual.

Peace pledges

The criminal code of Canada provides that any person may request that a peace bond be issued against a person if there is a reasonable apprehension that that person will cause harm to another person or risk damaging property . A peace bond is a court order that binds the subject to peace and good conduct, among other conditions added by the court.

Civil remedies

A defamation action can be brought against a person who has made defamatory statements about another person, either in writing (including online statements) or verbally, which damages their good reputation. Only an individual (and not a municipality) can sue for defamation. It can be a long and expensive process. Defamation can often be cured with an apology. There are several legitimate defenses to a defamation claim, such as fair comment. If the claim is successful, the court may order the payment of damages. Even then, a judgment is only as good as the ability to profit from it. Currently, it is not possible to sue for harassment in itself.

An ounce of prevention

What can municipalities do to help prevent and mitigate assaults and harassment before they start?

Use the appropriate channels: The Chief Administrative Officer and staff should be the primary contact between the public and the municipality (for a good reference see the Chief Administrative Officer’s Handbook for Alberta Municipal Managers available at https://open.alberta.ca/publications/9781460139189). They have a responsibility to meet with the general public, including meeting residents who may or may not approve of a recent council decision. The general manager should listen to concerns and provide relevant information, but not take a position other than to carry out board directives. The CEO should inform the board so that other alternatives can be explored. This may include arranging for the individual to appear on council as a delegation, where the municipality’s procedure by-law permits.

Be transparent: It is common for municipalities to post council and committee agendas and minutes online, as well as by-laws and other important documents. The Municipalities Act allows closed meetings only in very limited circumstances; follow these rules. The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) requires that most municipal records (including emails) be made public. Why force someone to make a FIPPA request when they have a legitimate request for information?

Get to know yourself: On February 28, 1983, over 106 million North Americans watched the final episode of the M*A*S*H television series. It doesn’t happen anymore. We are living increasingly separate lives. We consume separate worldviews. Often we don’t know our neighbours. Healthy communities provide opportunities for people to do things together. It could be a litter cleanup, an annual festival, going to the hockey rink, or a picnic. People who work together in a common pursuit are more likely to agree respectfully, even when opinions differ.

Limiting and effectively responding to harassment and threatening behavior starts with good governance. Even the best efforts will not entirely prevent it. Create a plan to deal with any such behavior that might arise and stick to it.

This article was written for Municipal Leader magazine and is reproduced with permission.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.