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Gaps found in council harassment policy

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Following revelations made by an Oshawa city councillor that she’s faced sexual harassment during her time in office, councillors are looking to try and fill the gaps that currently exist in handling these types of complaints.

During council’s regular meeting on Oct. 16, Councillor Amy McQuaid-England alleged that there have been multiple instances of sexual harassment during her political career, some of them coming from inside city hall.

“I have been inappropriately hit on, I’ve been asked to sit on people’s laps, I’ve had comments made about my appearance,” she previously said, adding that she has repeatedly encountered men “who have used their power to do things that are completely inappropriate.”

Following this, at meeting of the Corporate Services committee on Oct. 23, the councillor attempted to shine some light on the process for councillors to come forward with complaints, a process that she notes has many flaws, and relies heavily on the victim coming forward to report the complaint.

Due to the fact that councillors are not employees of the City of Oshawa, they do not have access to the same process through which staff members can report complaints to Human Resources.

As it stands, if a councillor has a complaint, they must bring it forward to the city clerk, who will then place it on the council agenda as an item with the names and any identifying information removed. At that time, council then decides whether to proceed with an investigation of the complaint, generally through an integrity commissioner.

As it stands, council’s Code of Conduct does not include any items related to sensitivity or harassment training to educate councillors on these matters.

“I’d like staff to consider yearly sensitivity training (for councillors) regarding workplace violence and harassment, and mechanisms for mediation ahead of a code violation, similar to what’s offered to employees,” McQuaid-England says.

A large issue with the current process is that it requires the victim to be okay with making their complaint in a public forum.

“It ends up very very public,” McQuaid-England says. “It’s very difficult to go through a process that can be very public.”

Moving forward with additions to the Code of Conduct could be as easy as mirroring what already exists for city employees, McQuaid-England says.

“I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here. I just think we need to be closing some loopholes.”

The suggestions received strong support from other councillors on the committee.

“I think it’s important that we all understand…we may be independent employees from the city…but we still have a responsibility to conduct ourselves in a professional manner,” said Councillor Doug Sanders.

Moving forward, following a motion from Councillor Gail Bates, staff will be looking at the possibility of further information being provided to councillors, in particular, advice from HR and Legal departments as to what could be added to council’s Code, as well as investigating the process used in the City of Guelph where councillors are under the same umbrella as city employees when it comes to the handling of harassment complaints.

City clerk Andrew Brouwer noted the changes are something staff and council will need to review thoroughly before moving forward and may take time to put together.

“These are very important questions that have to be well though out and well reviewed,” he said. “We need a little bit of time and space to prepare this properly.”