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Whitehead censure does not solve council-staff issues

Whitehead censure does not solve council-staff issues

Hamilton Councillor Terry Whitehead, by saying he may seek a Judicial review of his censure by council, and his repeating of an allegation against a city staffer, demonstrates that he has not accepted blame for his course of conduct over the 18 years he has been on council. It will be up to the voters of Ward 14 to make the ultimate judgment on Whitehead’s record. Referring the matter to a judicial review, however, will only serve to drag the matter into the election year—maybe not a good tactic.

The Integrity Commissioner’s report talked about years of Whitehead’s bullying behavior towards staff at council meetings; but it does not require an integrity commissioners’ report for regular council watchers to attest to the truth of the IC’s findings. The September 11, 2020 meeting at which Whitehead went after Roads boss Ed Soldo, accusing him of lying and of disobeying a council directive is available to all by archived video on the city website. That was the incident that triggered the IC’s investigation. But those interested can go back 11 years to a meeting at which, according to former Spectator columnist Andrew Dreschel, Whitehead engaged in “relentless badgering” of staff, on a matter being debated, accusing them of providing false information. Finally, the then city manager Chris Murray stepped in and threatened to have all staff pulled out of the meeting if the badgering didn’t cease. It was a dramatic moment that unfortunately had no lasting effect.

Whitehead is guilty as charged and he should shut up and try to improve his interpersonal skill set, but to suggest that he is the only member of council to have behaved inappropriately with staff would be wrong. Predating this current council, but not entirely, there were numerous examples. For instance, the integrity commissioner found that Whitehead had threatened staff’s jobs at times. But there was an instance early in Whitehead’s time on council where, as court documents later showed, the late councillor Bernie Morelli, not only threatened a staffer’s job, but got three other staffers fired for failing to protect the threatened staffer. Such was the twisted set of values that Morelli was not sanctioned because councillors were afraid of him, as one told a reporter. The city ended up forking out hundreds of thousands in legal and severance fees. Then there is the issue of agenda manipulation. In a previous term of council a member of the clerk’s staff tearfully admitted that she had been pressured to remove an item from a council agenda at the behest of a councillor. It’s not just the intimidation of staff. There is also the issue of the promotion and protection of staff who have ingratiated themselves with members of council. There may be more of that than the bullying. We have just seen the removal of the heads of Public Works and a senior manager, It would be useful to know if complaints from councillors played any role in that shakeup.

The point here is that improving the tone of council meetings, could create a false sense that everything is ok. The worst abuses of council-staff relations do not always take place at council meetings. And rooting that out will be a real challenge.

John Best

Bill Kelly and I discussed the issue on his show November 11. The conversation is here.

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