By Doug Draper
Posted November 10th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – A former Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority employee – sued by the NPCA this September for allegedly breaking an agreement she signed when she left the body a year ago not to “disparage” it in any way – is fighting back with a lawsuit of her own.
According to a “Statement of Defence and obtained by Niagara At Large and filed on her behalf in an Ontario Superior Court of Justice in St. Catharines this November 7th, Jocelyn Baker, who was employed at the NPCA for more than 23 years before being terminated in November 2016, is taking the Conservation Authority to court for $200,000 in damages for allegedly defaming her, $200,000 in damages for alleged breach of contract, and additional “punitive, exemplary and aggravated damages to be determined by the court.”
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, which earlier this year launched a defamation suit against Niagara, Ontario community activist and retired Canadian Armed Forces officer Ed Smith, sued Baker this past September$164,000 after Welland Riding MPP Cindy Forster read an email she sent her in the Ontario legislature as part of a call the MPP was making to the provincial government for more transparency and accountability at the NPCA, and a thorough, independent audit of its operations.
In the email to Forster, Baker raised concerns about allegations of ongoing cases of workplace harassment at the NPCA. Baker charged in the email that while still working at the NPCA, she “personally experienced and supervised employees who regularly experienced workplace violence, harassment (sexual, gender and family status), unwanted comment, conduct, and behaviour, including bullying. All of this behaviour by members of senior management.”
In the lawsuit the NPCA launched against her, it charged that the content of Baker’s email and the subsequent reading of it by the MPP in an open session of the provincial legislature violated a ‘memorandum of understanding’ she signed upon her termination to not, in any way, say anything disparaging about the Conservation Authority.
The NPCA also alleged in its suit that Baker’s email allegedly offered up a “complete mischaracterization NPCA’s workplace and its managerial employees.”
Baker, who was a long-time project manager with the NPCA, overseeing an ongoing Remedial Action Plan for the Niagara River watershed, among other programs, “wholly disputes (that Conservation Authority) incurred reputational damage” as a result of the email, states her lawyer Barry Adams of the Chown Cairns law firm in the counter suit filed this November 7th in the Ontario court.
Before Baker prepared and sent her email to Forster, the NPCA was already “a focus of intense media scrutiny,” as well as scrutiny by community groups, Niagara area politicians and the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) representing some of the employees at the Conservation,” Adams argues in the statement on Baker’s behalf. “The short speech by MPP Forster (which included the contents of Baker’s email) was pale by comparison,” the statement adds.
“The defendant (Baker) asserts the plaintiff (NPCA) suffered no damages” as a result of Baker’s email, the statement continues. “To the contrary, this claim (in the lawsuit the NPCA filed this September against Baker) has the look and feel of an attempt to reprise against the defendant for comments made by others, specifically y a public official on the floor of the legislature in the public interest.”
In further response to the NPCA’s claim that Baker broke the memorandum of agreement both parties signed not to make damaging comments about one another, Baker’s lawyer charges in her statement that the NPCA has made “numerous comments disparaging of (Baker),” including circulating false messages in and outside the organization that she had health issues – messages that might affect opportunities for her to get future work.
The court document charges that NPCA management also told others that Baker was let go from her job at the Conservation for financial reasons even though her work was 100 per cent funded by external agencies.
The court document goes on to charge that Mark Brickell, the NPCA’s current CAO, has “made numerous public statements routinely referring to the restoration program as ‘not meeting high standards and accountability.’”
“CAO Brickell.” The court document continues, “was quoted in the St. Catharines Standard October 2, 2017 repeating and then embellishing allegations that the (NPCA) had ‘uncovered serious deficiencies in accountability and oversight in the restoration program. (Baker) asserts the turn of phrase used by Brickell would lead a reasonable person to believe (Baker) was guilty of misconduct.”
“The statement” adds the court document, “directly targets (Baker’s) 15 years as a supervisor of the restoration program. The statements are patently disparaging of (Baker) as they were expressly calculated to be. (NPCA) has thereby breached the terms of the memorandum of agreement.”
The court document concludes that the NPCA “has acted in a manner designed to deflect criticism of the organization’s activities and the ongoing call for an overall audit to be performed by the provincial auditor by making various statements designed to disparage (Baker). … This bald attempt to deflect criticism and target (Baker) was done in bad faith.”
The court document filed on Jocelyn Baker’s behalf also spoke of her professional reputation while working at the NPCA, noting that she was an “uncommonly dedicated and well regarded manager of her programs.”
“She was and is well regarded in particular by the various external parties of the agency, including the federal and provincial governments and the governments of the various U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes,” the document filed in the Ontario court said.