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White Rock files petition response in bullying and harassment case

Report finds city CAO’s claims against Coun. Erika Johanson ‘credible’
The City of White Rock has issued a petition response in answer to Coun. Erika Johanson’s petition to the BC Supreme Court. Johanson is seeking to have the court order setting aside a decision penalizing her. (Rick Blacklaws photo)

White Rock Coun. Erika Johanson’s interactions with city staff raised legitimate concerns of bullying and harassment, according to an independent third-party workplace investigation commissioned on behalf of the city.

The review report, by Pamela Connolly of the Ukrainetz Workplace Law Group, is included in a petition response and affidavits – filed by lawyers for the City of White Rock Friday – in response to the petition filed by Johanson to the Supreme Court of BC.

Johanson claims she was penalized unjustly, following allegations last year that she bullied and harassed city staff. The allegations relate to Johanson’s questioning of staff (including former director of financial services Colleen Ponzini) about departmental budgeting procedures and information gathering processes, and her criticisms of the answers she received.

The original petition, filed on Johanson’s behalf on Sept. 1 of last year, asks that the court order a July 7 decision by Chief Administrative Officer Guillermo Ferrero – blocking her direct access to staff – set aside, under the Judicial Review Procedure Act.

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Connolly said in her report that she found Ferrero’s account credible, and that his actions were reasonable.

“I find that Mr. Ferrero had a reasonable basis to assert…that Councillor Johanson had engaged in workplace bullying and harassment…he had sufficient information to believe that Councillor Johanson’s behaviour met the definition of personal harassment in (the city’s) Respectful Workplace Policy.”

Connolly also said she had not received any information that would suggest Ferrero’s accusations were made with “any sort of malicious or improper intent.”

“As such, I do not substantiate Councillor Johanson’s complaint that Mr. Ferrero engaged in workplace bullying or harassment by mischaraterizing her communications as bullying and harassment.”

Connolly’s report also notes that, by the time of Ferrero’s July 7 decision, former director of financial services Colleen Ponzini had taken a medical leave, and has since left the city.

“Numerous employees, including (municipal operations and engineering manager) Jim Gordon, (planning and development services director) Carl Isaak and (planning manager) Greg Newman, were showing signs of stress because of communications from Councillor Johanson,” she said.

Both Newman and Isaak have also since left city staff.

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Johanson said on Monday the investigation was “clearly not independent.”

“It was paid for by a lawyer and done by a lawyer,” she told Peace Arch News.

“It’s a he-said, she-said thing, and it’s going to be thrown out – I have that both from my lawyer and the office of the Ombudsperson.”

The decision used a standing council policy to forbid direct communications between Johanson and city staff members, other than Ferrero.

Johanson said she had read Ferrero’s initial report but found it difficult to follow.

“It’s all innuendo, and making statements without tying them to particular emails,” she said

Johanson has claimed that she was not presented with details of allegations against her and was given no opportunity to answer them, although Ferrero recalled that she had declined to participate in a number of in-person meetings.

Connolly said that “despite efforts to schedule an interview with Councillor Johanson, she ultimately refused to meet” during the investigation.

Connolly said, however, that she had met with both Ferrero and Ponzini for their accounts, had received supporting documentation from both, and found both credible.

“I was unable to assess Councillor Johanson’s credibility because I did not have an opportunity to conduct her interview,” she said.

Johanson countered that she did not participate because the questions were not given in advance, and she was not able to answer them in writing, adding that she expected to have been able to respond both verbally and in writing.

In the petition response lawyers for the city argue that Johanson’s petition “does not plead sufficient facts to bring the case within the purview of the Judicial Review Procedure Act.”

They also note that Johanson’s petition “contains no allegations or analysis to identify how any legal right of the petitioner was adversely affected.”

The response also includes affidavits from Ferrero and some 100 pages of emails sent by Johanson to staff, and their answers.

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