Niagara MPP Urges New NPCA Board to Drop Lawsuit Against Former Employee For Speaking Out About Alleged Cases of Workplace Harassment at Conservation Authority

“We can only hope that with a clean slate of board members and a new Interim CAO the days of the NPCA trying to muzzle opposition by suing individuals who dare question its operation, management, hiring and firing practices is finally over.”               – Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch

A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper

Posted December 7th, 2018 on Niagara At Large

Former NPCA employee Jocelyn Baker still has a costly lawsuit hanging over her head after speaking out about alleged cases of workplace harassment inside the NPCA

With a new interim board of directors and CAO in place at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, one of Niagara’s Members of Provincial Parliament is calling on them to drop an ongoing lawsuit that the NPCA’s old board and managers  slapped against former employee Jocelyn Baker.

“I commend Niagara Regional Council for taking immediate action in replacing the former NPCA Board, which spearheaded the lawsuit against Ms. Baker,” Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch said in an open letter this December 7th of the Region’s new council voting before adjourning its December 6th inaugural ceremonies to immediately install an interim replacement board at an NPCA where the old board was threatening not to step down.

“We can only hope that with a clean slate of board members and a new Interim CAO the days of the NPCA trying to muzzle opposition by suing individuals who dare question its operation, management, hiring and firing practices is finally over,” added Burch in the letter, a copy of which was sent to all 12 Niagara regional councillors and mayors now sitting on the board, and to Niagara’s new Regional Chair Jim Bradley.

Baker, a long-time manager of conservation projects at the NPCA, was sued by the agency in the fall of 2017 for allegedly violating a non-disclosure agreement she signed the year before when the NPCA gave her an $84,000 payout after firing her “without alleging cause.”

Then Niagara Centre MPP Cindy Forster read the concerns Jocelyn Baker raised in her letter in the provincial legislature, hoping that the Liberal government of the day would take action.

According to the NPCA’s claim against her, the violation of the agreement occurred when Baker emailed a letter to her MPP at the time – Burch’s predecessor in the Niagara Centre riding, Cindy Forster – discussing what she called a continuing “culture of harassment and violence” in the NPCA workplace, and then gave Forster permission to read the letter in the Ontario legislature.

“I have been waiting for my gut to tell me it’s time to speak out (and) now is the time,” said Baker in her letter that Forster read in the legislature on September 11th, 2017.

“I have no tolerance for harassment, incivility or disrespect. The NPCA, as you are keenly aware, is in crisis,” Baker, whose home is located in the Niagara Centre riding, went on in her letter to the MPP.

“The culture of harassment and violence continues, most recently verified through an OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) survey (of employees at the NPCA) which I am confident you are aware of. NPCA front-line staff and middle managers continue to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions. This will continue until Ms. (Kathryn) McGarry (then Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry) steps in and stops it. She has the authority; she just needs the gumption.”

McGarry did not step in, but the NPCA did with the lawsuit which, among other things, called the charges Baker made in her letter “a complete mischaracterization of the NPCA’s workplace and its managerial employees.”

At public meetings over the past few years, NPCA representatives have repeatedly said the agency has a clean record when it comes to workplace harassment.

Yet when Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released a detailed report on the NPCA this past September, after several months of investigating the agency’s operations, she concluded; “One-half of (NPCA) staff told us (Auditor General Office investigators) in interviews that harassment was widespread in the NPCA workplace and that there was a culture of fear and intimidation at the NPCA.”

In his open letter to the NPCA’s interim board and CAO (Lisa McManus, who has just replaced Mark Brickell), Burch concludes his call for dropping the lawsuit against Backer this way –

Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch is calling on the NPCA’s new interim board to drop the lawsuit against Jocelyn Baker.

“From my understanding,” wrote the MPP, “recent efforts to settle the lawsuit involving Ms. Baker have been met with full resistance by the NPCA.  This matter has now dragged on for over a year and a half and we have no idea what that legal bill will be.”

“A new Chair has yet to be appointed for the NPCA Board but I am asking the board to give serious consideration to dropping this lawsuit against Ms. Baker.” Burch continued.

“It is time to turn a new page at the NPCA so it can focus on issues relevant to its mandate under the Conservation Authorities Act, which is to develop programs to further the conservation and restoration, development and management of our natural resources under increasing pressure from developments.”

The newly installed interim board is tentatively scheduled to hold its first meeting this coming Wednesday, December 12th.

Niagara At Large will be watching to see if and how this and other pressing issues facing this problem-plagued agency are addressed by the new board members who certainly have a good deal of work ahead of them.

NAL will also have more to say in the days ahead about this  lawsuit, still hanging over a former NPCA employee that has a stellar reputation with other agencies she has worked in partnership with on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border.

The monetary cost and the stress t on Jocelyn Baker and her family has got to end, and those responsible for this  should be made to pay compensation to Baker and her family, preferably out of their own pockets!

Stay tuned.

Here is the text of Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch’s full letter to the NPCA’s new interim board –

Dear NPCA Board Members:

I am sending this letter on behalf of constituent Jocelyn Baker, a former employee of Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, who is the defendant in a lawsuit brought against her by the NPCA stemming from comments made public by Former MPP Cindy Forster in the Ontario Legislature.

I commend Niagara Regional Council for taking immediate action in replacing the former NPCA Board, which spearheaded the lawsuit against Ms. Baker.

The NPCA spend more than a quarter of a million dollars of our tax money in a failed attempt to sue St. Catharines Ed Smith after he raised questions and concerns about the way the agency has been operating with millions of dollars of our money.

She was mentioned in the recent Auditor General’s report covering staffing changes and harassment in the workplace and the unsuccessful lawsuit against taxpayer Ed Smith. That lawsuit cost the NPCA and taxpayers of Niagara over $130,000 dollars to settle with a total legal bill in excess of $260,000.

We can only hope that with a clean slate of board members and a new Interim CAO the days of the NPCA trying to muzzle opposition by suing individuals who dare question its operation, management, hiring and firing practices is finally over.

From my understanding, recent efforts to settle the lawsuit involving Ms. Baker have been met with full resistance by the NPCA.  This matter has now dragged on for over a year and a half and we have no idea what that legal bill will be.

A new Chair has yet to be appointed for the NPCA Board but I am asking the board to give serious consideration to dropping this lawsuit against Ms. Baker. 

It is time to turn a new page at the NPCA so it can focus on issues relevant to its mandate under the Conservation Authorities Act, which is to develop programs to further the conservation and restoration, development and management of our natural resources under increasing pressure from developments.

I look forward to a positive outcome from this request.

Sincerely, Jeff Burch, MPP

  • Copy:     Jim Bradley, Niagara Regional Chair and Councillors
  •                 Lisa McManus, Interim CAO, Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority

To read a story Niagara At Large posted this December 7th on the new Niagara Regional Council’s appointment of an interim NPCA board, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2018/12/07/new-niagara-region-councils-appointment-of-an-interim-npca-board-seals-rogue-boards-fate/ .

To read Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s special report on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and its operations, click on– http://www.auditor.on.ca/en/content/specialreports/specialreports/NPCA_en.pdf

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For more news and commentary from Niagara At Large – an independent, alternative voice for our greater bi-national Niagara region – become a regular visitor and subscriber to NAL at www.niagaraatlarge.com .

 “A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders

 

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