Sooke District staff abruptly walks out of meeting

Council-watcher questions finance bylaw and expenditures 'illegal'

Several District of Sooke staff abruptly walked out of a council meeting Monday night during a discussion of a bylaw amendment to the municipality’s five-year financial plan.

The staff cleared the room when council-watcher Gail Hall questioned the validity of the bylaw and expenditures.

“Council is being misled on this. This staff report is not accurate. [The bylaw amendment] being brought forward tonight is not legal,” Hall said.

“The money has already been spent … those were illegal expenditures.”

With that, Mayor Maja Tait halted the meeting to allow staff to leave.

“Comments that have been made have had an impact on my ability to have a safe working environment [for staff] and some of those comments have been allegations of staff doing something criminal or untoward,” Tait said.

It was a comment not accepted by Hall.

“That’s got nothing to do with this,” Hall said. “I’m trying to tell you that you can’t … you know what – shove it.”

Hall then walked out, despite an offer from Tait to continue her questions and comments to council.

The 2016-2020 five-year financial plan amendment bylaw was introduced by the district’s finance department this year.

Council must amend the financial plan to include the expenditures and the funding source for the expenditure that was not included in the original bylaw, according to the Community Charter, the provincial legislation that covers municipal councils.

Financial plan amendments are not unusual, with New Westminster, Richmond, West Vancouver, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Grand Forks, Penticton, North Vancouver, Golden and Smithers tabling similar documents.

Finance director Brent Blackhall said he did not receive any inquiries about the bylaw amendment before Monday’s meeting. The information was released in mid-November.

On Monday, two speakers stepped forward – Britt Santowski, the writer of a local blog, and Hall. Santowski questioned the use of the corporate services contingency fund.

Disagreements between Hall, district staff and council have brewed for months.

In June, the District of Sooke wrote a cease and desist order to Hall asking her to stop bullying and defaming staff, said Teresa Sullivan, the district’s chief administrative officer, adding she has received three staff complaints.

Hall has gone to the RCMP on several occasions with complaints about the district, Sullivan said. The RCMP were unavailable for comment.

WorkSafe B.C. regulations require any employer to provide a safe workplace for its staff that’s free of harassment and bullying. “I take that role very seriously,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said her staff will walk out again if Hall or any other member of the public comes to council and starts defaming staff, admitting the walkout was planned to protect staff.

“The staff certainly heard and understood the concerns (about the financial plan amendment) put forward by council and members of the public, but to say a report is illegal or some untoward activity occurred, I find troubling,” Tait said.

Council passed the five-year financial plan amendment bylaw unanimously.