Just back from an extended sick leave, Ward 14 Councillor Terry Whitehead has been hit with an Integrity Commissioner report that could cost him a month’s salary. In a bluntly-worded report, Hamilton’s Integrity Commissioner has found that Ward 14 Councillor Terry Whitehead bullied and intimidated a senior city staffer and that the incident was only part of a long-standing pattern of mistreating staff that went back years.
Staff member cross-examined, accused of lying
The incident that triggered the investigation was a contentious Public Works Committee meeting on September 11, 2020, at which the decision to impose traffic-calming measures on Aberdeen Avenue was being discussed. At that meeting Whitehead subjected Hamilton’s Chief Road Official Ed Soldo to a line of questioning that the IC found took on the form of a courtroom cross examination that lasted over an hour. The questioning starts at about the 2 hour and 15 minute point of the recording of the meeting.
About that exchange the commissioner wrote, “Councillor Whitehead wrongly accused Staff Member A (Soldo) of acting contrary to previous Council direction, implied that Staff Member A was misleading the committee, accused Staff Member A of giving different answers in private than in public, and suggested Staff Member A was lying. The Councillor then proceeded to demand a public apology from Staff Member A for the alleged transgression of failing to consult before implementing the Council direction..” The commissioner earlier noted, “questioning which takes the form of cross-examination and interrogation is disrespectful and inappropriate and places staff in the unfair position of having to simply endure it, since they have no right to speak, unless asked…”
Suggested a manager had been fired from previous job
More critically, the commissioner found that Whitehead had floated a false rumor that the manager had been fired from his previous job, and had shared the false information with several persons, including the City Manager and a subordinate of the manager. Of that incident, the commissioner was scathing in his finding. “This is egregious conduct, as it serves the dual purposes of undermining and impugning Staff Member A’s reputation and ability to support and manage staff, and intimidating to staff, by reminding them that he, as a Councillor, is able to damage and destroy the reputation and, by extension, career and livelihood of those who do not comply with his wishes and desires.”
Senior staff took matters into own hands
Senior management, apparently fed up with what they later told the commissioner was a pattern of bullying staff by Whitehead, and lack of support from council, referred the matter to the Integrity Commissioner. The complaint was filed by the Human Resources Department to spare the individual from having to place himself in the line of fire. Senior staff provided the commissioner with half a dozen other examples of Whitehead bullying staff. The commissioner said the situation got so bad that senior managers would keep members of their staff away from meetings where it was likely an exchange with Whitehead would occur and instead take the questions themselves. Observed the commissioner, “A concern exists that left unchecked, the behavior will exacerbate retention/recruitment difficulties. Experienced professionals with long track records and excellent credentials would be understandably hesitant to risk exposing their reputations to damage wrought in such an environment.”
Recurring threats of being fired
A frequent theme from witnesses was councillor threatening the jobs of staff. Even now, the commissioner reported senior staff are concerned about possible reprisals over the filing of the complaint. “There is the concern that the Councillor will retaliate against those who participated in this complaint, as well as Staff Member A. While Staff Member A is well-respected in his field and among management at the City, it is felt that the disclosure of this behavior and the outcome of this investigation would expose him to more of the Councillor’s objectionable behavior.”
Council failed to rebuke colleague
The commissioner had some harsh words for the rest of council who have witnessed Whitehead’s treatment of staff but did nothing to rebuke it, although on the contentious meeting that triggered the complaint, Chair John-Paul Danko did eventually expel Whitehead (electronically) from the meeting. “When there is silence around the table,” the commissioner wrote, “this likely speaks volumes to Councillor Whitehead. More than merely enabling this bad behaviour, it condones and ,encourages it. “
”Council members are not mere by-standers when conduct escalates. They can play a role in calling it out and challenging it, with the voice of reason. It would be unfortunate if members of Council do not place value in supporting the appropriate and respectful treatment of professional staff above their personal allegiances and loyalties to each other.”
Behavior towards staff preceded illness
The report indicated that Whitehead had been provided with the Integrity Commissioners’ findings in February of this year, but shortly afterwards had gone on medical leave which necessitated delaying the release of the findings until this week.
The commissioner said Whitehead attributed his behavior to his recent illness, but wrote, “During our investigation, we were made aware of a number of other instances, over several years, of Councillor Whitehead threatening the job of other management staff, at very senior levels, in attempting to extract a change in position in their professional advice or opinions.”
The commissioner is recommending Whitehead be docked a months salary and that he be prevented from putting questions to anyone other than the City Manager or department heads. Under the legislation, the Integrity Commissioner could have imposed up to a three month pay suspension but opted for the one month penalty writing.
We are mindful that the hardships and challenges of the past year of pandemic have taken their toll on the Councillor, as they have on so many others navigating these difficult times. However, we must also recognize that the conduct and behaviour which triggered this complaint reflects a pattern of targeted and bullying behaviour which has been observed over several years. Under the circumstances, the severity of the sanction is tempered so that the Councillor is not unduly financially penalized.”
Council will ultimately decide on Whitehead’s fate.