Norfolk councillors, who have been at odds in the past, have participated in some refresher orientation training.
The lengthy and wide-ranging session that included presentations on priorities and structure, accountability and transparency, and governance, was meant to provide councillors with information about their roles and responsibilities, said county clerk Teresa Olsen.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for staff to share additional information and reinforce the educational provisions related to councillors’ term of council.”
When asked by Mayor Kristal Chopp for an assessment of how the operation of Norfolk council compares to those in other municipalities, Olsen, who has been with Norfolk since April, said it was “in line with most municipalities I’ve worked with.”
“There are always challenges,” she said. “There are always relationship constraints at times. Since I’ve been here this council has shown a lot of respect to myself and staff I’ve worked with. The fact that you’re open to having a refresher orientation in the middle of a term I think speaks volumes. If council continues to be open and collaborative with staff as they have been, I think we can do a lot of good things.”
But while Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin said council is “making strides” toward better behaviour recently, she said what has happened in the past can’t be dismissed.
“I don’t know if it’s an entirely accurate picture that this is the way we’ve operated previously,” said Martin. “I would say that probably isn’t with the highest amount of respect and dignity and care for one another around this table. I think it would be a mistake to pretend that it was just healthy debate.
“We’ve heard council members speak about not wanting to walk the stairs to come up to a meeting.”
Back in November, tensions that had been building among councillors erupted.
Chopp left a council meeting when she learned that councillors intended to discuss their fraught relationship as an added item to the agenda, saying she wouldn’t be party to a “witch hunt.”
At the meeting, Martin said “decorum is at an all-time low, both in and out of chambers, and the stress, bullying, fear and intimidation is at an all-time high and it must stop now.”
At the time, Chopp called for an end to what she said was a leaking of confidential documents and deliberations that she said was damaging to the morale of senior staff.
Veteran Delhi councillor Mike Columbus said he had been subject to “insinuations, accusations, belittlement and threats by our mayor that I did something wrong with respect to protocols of municipal council business.”
Coun. Linda Vandendriessche, who joined council after winning a by-election in June, said at the orientation meeting that with “maturity and respect, I think we can function pretty well.”
“I’m not a person whose going to keep my thoughts to myself but, at the end of the day, I’m tough on the issues and kind on the people and I hope everybody can work with that.”
Council’s code of conduct states that “members have a duty to treat members of the public, each other and staff with respect and dignity and without abuse, bullying or intimidation.” It also states that “members have a duty to ensure that the county’s work environment is safe and free from discrimination and harassment.
When asked by Columbus, Erin Anderson, director of human resources, said her department doesn’t get a lot of complaints involving harassment and bullying. She said staff try to intervene early and work things out.
CAO Jason Burgess said the county takes issues very seriously, citing how an incident earlier this year resulted in the dismissal of two employees.
“These aren’t just empty words,” he said. “There can be serious consequences.”