Kentville councillor files complaint over 'toxic work environment' at town hall

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Kentville Coun. Andrew Zebian has asked Nova Scotia's ombudsman to look into allegations made in a July 2020 letter by Kelly Rice, a former CAO of Kentville, about treatment of municipal staff by certain councillors and Mayor Sandra Snow.  (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Kentville Coun. Andrew Zebian has asked Nova Scotia's ombudsman to look into allegations made in a July 2020 letter by Kelly Rice, a former CAO of Kentville, about treatment of municipal staff by certain councillors and Mayor Sandra Snow. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

A councillor in Kentville, N.S., has asked the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman to investigate allegations of a "toxic work environment" at town hall.

In June, Coun. Andrew Zebian obtained a copy of a letter written in July 2020 by Kelly Rice, a former chief administrative officer of Kentville. CBC News also received a copy. The letter has already been published by Frank Magazine.

The letter outlines the treatment of staff by certain councillors and Mayor Sandra Snow. It alleges that Snow made inappropriate remarks about employees loud enough for them to hear and threatened to trip a staff member so she would "smash her face."

Rice would not do an interview with CBC News, but other sources say the information in the letter is accurate.

In an email to CBC, Snow said she is bound by a confidentiality agreement and cannot comment on the letter, but added that "no threats of violence in the workplace are acceptable."

"I would not, nor have I, threatened a member of staff," wrote Snow. "My relationship with staff is professional."

CBC
CBC

Snow also wrote that council acted swiftly on the allegations and that "legal and professional HR advice was pursued."

Sources tell CBC that those sessions were not handled properly and did not allay concerns.

Zebian tried to have the letter dealt with at a town council meeting in July, but was told by Dan Troke, the current CAO, that a public debate would put the town "in legal jeopardy." Zebian refused to discuss it in private.

"There's been no accountability, no transparency, it's just being brushed under the rug again," said Zebian. "We need to stand up and say this is wrong, we support our staff."

Troke has a different assessment.

"It's a great place to work, this is not a toxic work environment," said Troke. "The folks who work here are safe and feel it is a safe place to come work."

According to Snow's email, the new CAO has instituted training and mediation for staff since he was hired in January.

Due process

Troke said people need to let "due process take place" when it comes to an investigation by the ombudsman's office.

Zebian is unsure how long the investigation will take. A spokesperson for the ombudsman's office said in an email that, for reasons of confidentiality, it does not confirm matters that "may or may not be brought to the attention of the office."

The town of Kentville does have a policy on anti-violence in the workplace as well as a code of conduct for council members.

The anti-violence policy covers intimidation and verbal abuse, but indicates employees should go to their supervisor or the CAO.

Sources tell CBC that staff have no confidence in that process. But Troke disagrees.

"I have no concern at all that we are in a circumstance where folks wouldn't feel free to come forward, " said Troke.

Questions around code of conduct

Kentville Coun. Cathy Maxwell questions the effectiveness of the town's code of conduct.

She said she was harassed on social media by another councillor for over a year in her first term from 2016-20 and asked for the situation to be dealt with under the code of conduct. Maxwell said her complaint should have gone to council, but instead it was dealt with by the mayor and CAO.

"I felt bullied," said Maxwell. "They refused to enforce the code of conduct and the behaviour continued and I was made an outcast."

That is not how Snow remembered the handling of those types of incidents during a council meeting in December 2019.

"We have not been negligent in our use of our code of conduct," said Snow. "Appropriate action has been taken on every single one of the complaints that have come forward."

Snow went on to explain that municipal codes of conduct do not have any "teeth" because the province has not given them any. In her email, Snow reiterated that "her allegations were investigated within the framework of the policy."

A new provincial law requiring all municipalities to have a code of conduct policy received Royal Assent earlier this year. But the regulations for that policy are still being worked on with help from the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities and the Association of Municipal Administrators.

Mike Dolter, the president of the AMA, said in an email that the regulations being considered would require appointing an independent person to receive and investigate complaints as well as a list of sanctions councils may impose for a breach of conduct.

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