Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

City Briefs: Whistleblower Tension

Things get a tad contentious at council over employee protection protocol and advertising policy.

Monday’s Municipal Services committee meeting ended on a surprisingly tense note after Mayor Mark Heyck cut coun. Niels Konge short during a discussion about whistleblower policies.

“There are certainly people who work in the City of Yellowknife who don’t feel like they can bring their complaints forward without basically putting a target on their back,” said Konge. “I’ve heard that from a couple of people. And that is worrisome. As a council we’re supposed to make the City better for everybody and nobody knows how to do that better than the people who actually work at the City.”

“Councillor Konge, I would be very careful,” cut in Heyck. “You’re alleging things that are unsubstantiated and it puts our staff in a very very difficult position, so if there’s anything specific that you want to discuss we can go in camera to do that at, but throwing…”

“No, just a policy so people can feel comfortable coming forward with their concerns,” Konge responded, in turn cutting the mayor’s comments short.

The flareup occurred after Coun. Adrian Bell brought up the need, as he sees it, to have better policies in place to protect City employees and volunteers who come forward with allegations against the City or other employees.

Two policies already exist: an ethical conduct policy for City of Yellowknife employees as well as a conflict resolution anti-harassment policy.

“The ethical conduct for City of Yellowknife employees has a section on employees being expected to expose improper use of office, waste of funds and so on so forth, which is a bit along the lines of a whistleblower policy,” explained Marie Couturier, the City’s HR manager. “It also states in there that retaliation against an employee who reports any violation, abuse or other improper action is strictly prohibited, and it would also be illegal to retaliate against somebody because that would be viewed as harassment.”

For Bell, these policies aren’t good enough; he plans to bring forward a motion next Monday asking City administration to research options for a whistleblower policy and bring it back to council by February. He told EDGE that this was “not in response to specific situations, just a general need for a confidential complaints/feedback mechanism.”

Agitating adverts

The whistlerblower blow-up wasn’t the only tense moment of the meeting. Earlier, several councillors expressed displeasure at how administration is handling public outreach leading up to the 2016 budget debates in December.

One full-page advertisement placed in last Friday’s Yellowknifer came under particular fire for presenting a pie graph that showed municipal taxes and fees in the context of overall average household spending.

The offending advertisement: information or propaganda?

“I see that as being more marketing than the provision of information,” said Bell. “I don’t think we need to show people side by side what they’re spending on healthcare and what they’re spending on rent. For me that would be like the Northwest Territories Power Corporation saying, yes you’re paying a lot for power, but look, you’re also paying a ton for rent, why don’t you go talk to your landlord.”

Coun. Julian Morse took the criticism further, arguing the questions in the City’s online surveys veered too much toward marketing rather than information provision.

“The questions were leading questions, leading people to believe that the spending was inevitable,” said Morse. “What I didn’t feel was happening was administration coming to the public and saying, ‘Are you ok with us spending money on these things, and are you in support of us raising taxes in order for us to make these happen?’”

Senior Administrative Officer Dennis Kefalas agreed that going forward the City would make ads more “benign” –  “Less controversial, stick to the facts, please show up for our public presentation and our open houses, just encourage people to show up.”

Heyck, nonetheless, defended this style of ad: “A presentation of municipal taxation and utilities fees versus overall household spending, I think it is important to put that conversation and the upcoming budget deliberations and future deliberation into that overall context so we understand the magnitude of what we’re talking about.”