Mark Rendell

Whitelock To Sue Folk on the Rocks

The ex-executive director's exit gets messier, and the question is raised: can the festival survive?

The former Executive Director of Folk on the Rocks intends to launch a lawsuit and human rights complaint against the festival for what he alleges was his wrongful dismissal.

In a statement released by David Whitelock on Sunday, Jan. 17, he claims he was terminated without cause, in “breach of the Employment Standards Act,” and that the festival still owes him thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and bonuses.

“I intend to pursue all legal avenues open to me with respect both to monies owed to me up to the time of my termination, and damages as a result of the conduct of Folk on the Rocks,” the statement reads.

When asked by EDGE about the amount he intends to claim in unpaid wages and damages, Whitelock declined to comment, saying, “In the interest of myself and Folk On The Rocks I cannot comment as that could be construed as prejudicial at this time.”

However, his release claims he was not paid his December salary, holiday pay for both 2014 and 2015 and a bonus, “as specified in my contract,” for 2014 and 2015 “equal to 20% of any general purpose income that is generated in excess of any cash income for the fiscal year ended August 31, 2013, to a maximum of $20,000 per year.”

The release goes on to say, “My contract of employment was for three years, and had no termination provisions in it. As a result, I am advised that I am entitled to be paid until the end of my contract, January 2017.”

FOTR president Ryan Fequet declined to comment on whether or not Whitelock had been paid these sums. Although he did tell EDGE, ”David was the sole employee so responsible for preparing all checks.”

Only a passing mention is made in the press release about the alleged breach of the “Human Rights Act” by FOTR; Whitelock did not elaborate when asked about this directly.

Ignominious departure

Whitelock’s “departure” was publically announced on Dec. 29 in a press release from the FOTR board of directors, which thanked “David for his hard work and dedication,” but offered no reasons for the split. The announcement came just over a month after the FOTR AGM, where it was announced the festival had seen a significant net loss for the second year in a row: $54,402 in 2015, after a $114,788 shortfall in 2014.

At the AGM, there was no suggestion Whitelock’s job was in question. Fequet told EDGE at the time: “We’re definitely on the up… We’re past the transition phase [with Whitelock] and on to the building phases.”

According to Whitelock’s statement, he was off on “medically approved sick leave” on Dec. 29, when he was served at his home with a “termination notice” which was “effective immediately.”

“The letter purported to terminate my employment for cause,” Whitelock says in his statement. “Certain of the grounds set out in the letter are fictitious. Others lack any type of detail. Others were presented to me without affording me either an opportunity to correct or to respond. I dispute that the “grounds” Folk on the Rocks included in my termination letter are grounds for termination without cause.”

When asked, Whitelock offered no further hints as to what the grounds for dismissal outlined in the letter were.

Nor did Fequet, who remained tightlipped in response to a number of questions raised by the release, saying, “The reason we can’t comment is we’re trying to work with Whitelock to ensure his departure is positive for both parties.”

Fequet added that, “His coming to you is the first I’ve heard about [Whitelock’s intention to take legal action against FOTR].”

What’s going on?

While on-the-record details about this increasingly messy departure are still scarce, what we know is the festival has lost a significant amount of money for two years in a row; the same years Whitelock was ED. How much of that loss can be chalked up to Whitelock’s management, however, is unclear. In 2014, the year the festival lost around $115,000, Whitelock had been hired only months before the festival got underway. And the biggest loss that year came from a roughly $70,000 reduction in grants; these grants may well have had application deadlines before or only shortly after Whitelock’s hiring date.

Fequet readily admitted that, “We’d gone through a transition prior to David’s arrival and we were in deficit position working hard to get out of that position.”

In 2015, the festival managed to scrape back around $40,000 in lost grants funding, and even saw revenues grow by around $110,000, thanks in large part to increases in the price of tickets and food and beverages. However, revenues were eaten away by growths in administrative expenses and, as in 2014, performer expenses, which increased by roughly $70,000 since 2013.

The board and the ED jointly scrutinize the festival’s budget – but without seeing budget documents, it’s hard to say whether Whitelock had been hitting or overshooting those targets over the past two years; all that is available are the final numbers presented in the financials.

Can the festival survive a lawsuit?

According to the financial statement presented at this year’s AGM, the festival’s net assets, once assets and liabilities are calculated, have dropped to negative $4,778 from $75,124 last year and $144,461 in 2013.

This doesn’t give the festival much money to play with in general, let alone deal with a lawsuit from Whitelock. Fequet did not want to speculate what the effect of a lawsuit could be on the festival’s already shaky finances. But he did say the board was working hard to make sure the 2016 festival happens.

At the AGM, Fequet said the budget for 2016 would be more “fiscally observant” and will hopefully yield a $30,000 surplus. The board hopes to recoup some costs by changing “staff structures” and changing the “strategy to populate the [performer] lineup,” Fequet said at the time, adding that the changes should not affect festival-goer’s experience.

“We’re embedded in the fabric of the NWT, and everyone recognizes it must go on, the show must show go on.”