New Brunswick’s newly appointed Ombud has decided the town was right when it refused to release a consultant’s report that assessed working conditions within Sackville Fire & Rescue.
In a letter e-mailed today to Warktimes, Ombud Marie-France Pelletier writes that the confidentiality of the report from Montana Consulting of Moncton is protected under Section 20 of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (RTIPPA).
That section excludes the release of records that pertain to investigations into personnel or harassment matters.
The town hired Montana Consulting after Warktimes reported a year ago that about 17 volunteer firefighters had resigned over a five-year period because of persistent bullying, sexism, intimidation and favouritism within the department.
Since it received the Montana report last September, the town has refused all requests to release it on the grounds that its results and 20 recommendations are “human resources related” and therefore, should remain confidential.
In today’s letter, Pelletier sides with the town and says no further investigation is needed.
Her ruling caps a year-long sequence of events including a series of legal arguments between The New Wark Times and the Ombud’s office.
- April 13, 2021: Warktimes publishes its first report on the troubled workplace in Sackville Fire & Rescue. CAO Jamie Burke responds: “As these are personnel matters, we will not be providing further comment.”
- April 16, 2021: Sackville mayoralty candidates tread cautiously in response to questions about Sackville Fire & Rescue.
- April 25, 2021: Warktimes publishes another story based on volunteer firefighters’ stories about harassment and bullying as well as their safety concerns.
- April 27, 2021: The town announces the hiring of Montana Consulting Group to conduct a workplace assessment of the fire department.
- April 29, 2021: Warktimes reports that four councillors running for re-election welcome the hiring of Montana.
- May 9, 2021: Warktimes reports that a former volunteer firefighter wants to participate in interviews the consultants are conducting with members of the fire department.
- July 6, 2021: Sackville firefighter Laura Thurston urges town council to make sure its members read and discuss the full report and recommendations from Montana Consulting rather than relying on a summary of it prepared by the CAO.
- September 10, 2021: Town announces it has received the Montana report, and has briefed members of council and the fire department on the 20 recommendations. Town says nothing in the report will be made public.
- September 20, 2021: Warktimes writes to Town Clerk Donna Beal requesting a copy of the Montana report under New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
- October 19, 2021: Beal responds by denying access to the report citing Section 20 of RTIPPA, which refers to personnel or harassment investigations.
- November 22, 2021: Warktimes files a complaint with the Ombud arguing that:
I feel the town is violating the spirit of RTIPPA, which is that information should be public with specific exceptions. In this case, the town is refusing to release any part of the Workplace Assessment including any of its 20 recommendations. This is a matter of considerable public interest since local taxpayers pay almost a million dollars per year for the fire protection provided by volunteers. Aside from the complaints from the firefighters themselves, there are safety implications for the town, especially when firefighters are quitting the department. The town CAO has said all of the recommendations will be implemented, but it won’t be possible to judge that if they are kept confidential. The CAO is also in a potential conflict of interest since several current and former firefighters complained that neither he nor his predecessor responded to their concerns.
- January 26, 2022: Chantal Gionet-Bergeron, senior legal counsel in the Ombud’s office sends a lengthy e-mail arguing, in effect, the town was right to refuse access to the Montana report under Section 20 of RTIPPA. She also cites a previous case in which members of the fire department in Tracadie were denied access to a workplace assessment report. To read her full e-mail, click here.
- January 26, 2020: Warktimes responds disagreeing with her findings and explaining the reasons why. To read those reasons, click here.
- January 27, 2022: Gionet-Bergeron replies that much of the information in the Montana report would be protected under Section 26(1) which concerns advice to a public body and that the threshold for public interest disclosure under Section 33.1 had not been met. To read her full response, click here.
- February 4, 2022: After Warktimes asks that the matter be referred to the Ombud for review, I file additional arguments based on a newly released international training manual for judges on upholding democracy compiled by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy. To read that e-mail, click here.
- April 12, 2022: Warktimes reports that Sackville Fire & Rescue is still in a state of crisis a full year after the initial reports of its workplace troubles.
- April 22, 2022: Ombud Marie France-Pelletier denies Warktimes access to the Montana report. To read her letter, click here.
To read the official biography of the new Ombud, click here.
To read a CBC story in which opposition members question her independence as a former staff member in the office of Conservative Premier Bernard Lord, click here.
This is Warktimes’s second go-round with the Ombud’s office. The first one also ended in defeat last year when former Ombud Charles Murray upheld the legality of secret town council budget meetings.