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‘No choice’ but to take the city to court, says White Rock council member

Petition cites no chance to refute claims of harassment against city staff
Coun. Erika Johanson is petitioning the BC Supreme Court to order a White Rock council decision penalizing her set aside. Contributed photo

White Rock Coun. Erika Johanson said she was left with no option other than to take legal action against the city, after she was penalized following allegations last year that she bullied and harassed city staff.

“I had no choice,” she told Peace Arch News. “B.C. is unique in Canada in that there is no provincial oversight of municipal affairs – there’s no recourse when things go wrong.”

A petition to the Supreme Court of BC was filed on Johanson’s behalf on Sept. 1 of last year. It asks that the court order a July 7 decision of council set aside, under the Judicial Review Procedure Act.

The petition states the city’s decision “found that the petitioner engaged in bullying and harassment and imposed a penalty on the petitioner as a result of the findings.”

As a consequence, Johanson said, she had no longer been allowed to communicate directly with staff members.

The decision invokes a city policy that says councillors can only communicate with staff through the chief administrative officer. While it had been policy since 2010, Johanson asserts it had not been enforced in the time she served as councillor, since she was sworn in on Nov. 5, 2018.

The petition also states that no complaints of harassment had been filed against Johanson, no investigation took place that involved her, that she was not allowed a hearing prior to a final determination being made and a penalty imposed, and that she was not able to defend herself or refute conclusions of fact.

The allegations, from city CAO Guillermo Ferrero, relate principally to communications between Johanson and then-director of finance Colleen Ponzini last year, while Johanson was determined that staff produce line-by-line, department level budgets for council’s perusal in the annual city budgeting process.

“There was a misunderstanding,” Johanson said. “They were calling financial plans budgets – they were confusing the two.”

But Johanson maintained more detailed information should be available – “even if it’s just a list of projects, (staff) should be able to justify every amount spent.”

Johanson – who acknowledges she is not a “go along to get along person” – said she also regrets the wording and tone of one email to Ferrero criticizing Ponzini’s answers to one of her questions on how information was being compiled.

“As a project manager during my career, I’d be fired ASAP if I gave such a response,” Johanson had written.

“I regret sending it,” Johanson said. “I sent it because I knew it to be true. But in hindsight it was not a good idea.”

The response from Ferrero, who had earlier reprimanded Johanson for “bullying” staff, was that the email was “inappropriate and unacceptable” – and he went on to say that he was setting up a meeting between himself, Johanson and Mayor Darryl Walker to discuss his concerns.

Johanson said she responded that she was willing to participate in such a meeting, but only if a third party was present. “I never heard back from them,” she said.

“(The city has) a respectful workplace policy, but nothing has been filed under that, nobody has approached me about it,” she added.

“Apparently I’ve been harassing and bullying people on multiple occasions, but I don’t know when. Certainly not in council. They’ve never been able to come up with any other cases. To say this happened multiple times – you’d expect the first, second or third time, someone would have pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, Erika, what’s going on?’ But this was out of the blue.”

Johanson said she has since felt isolated within council, and that her reputation has been “ruined” as other councillors have only heard Ferrero and Walker’s side of events.

City communications manager Amanda Silvers told PAN that, as the matter was before the courts, neither Ferrero nor Walker have any comment for publication.

Meanwhile, at the Feb. 28 regular meeting, council members unanimously backed a motion from Johanson to be forwarded to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, and the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, calling on the provincial government to create the office of a Municipal Ethics Commissioner.

The office, she said, would “respond to allegations of misconduct by an elected official of a municipal government and conduct an inquiry if warranted” and also “review decisions imposed on an elected official of a municipal government and conduct an inquiry if warranted.

“I believe this is the best way to deal with things that cannot be resolved amicably at the municipal level, so there is somewhere to go for municipalities in B.C.” she said.

Johanson told PAN she believes that there are councillors in other municipalities who are facing similar situations and who could benefit from an impartial and independent review.

“Independent is the key thing – otherwise it’s all politics,” she said.

“If we had something like this in place, there wouldn’t have been the need for this petition,” she added.

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