Edmonton mayor 'deeply concerned' about bullying allegations against councillor Rice

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he was aware of one incident related to the Ward Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi councillor’s behaviour and his office brought concerns forward to the city’s integrity commissioner in early October

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Edmonton’s mayor says he is “deeply concerned” about accusations Coun. Jennifer Rice bullied her assistants, as reported by Postmedia, and is also bothered by a lack of whistleblower protection for staff working for councillors.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he was aware of one incident related to the Ward Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi councillor’s behaviour and his office brought concerns forward to the city’s integrity commissioner in early October.  Postmedia spoke to five people who worked for Rice at various points in her two years on city council who accused her of bullying and creating a “hostile work environment,” among other allegations.

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Rice has declined interview requests and did not respond to questions about specific allegations in her office.

Sohi said he said he plans to contact the commissioner’s office again in light of allegations reported in this newspaper.

“I firmly believe every employee in the City of Edmonton, including employees working in the mayor’s office, in councillors’ offices, have a right to have a safe work environment,” he said.

Councillors’ assistants do not have the same protections and support through human resources as administrative employees for the City of Edmonton. According to the city, the only recourse for council assistants is to file a complaint with the integrity commissioner, a process that reveals the identity of the person who comes forward to the target of the complaint.

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In addition to five of Rice’s former employees, Postmedia has spoken to other staff currently working for other city council members who all say political staff don’t have enough protections.

The mayor, in an interview with Postmedia this week, echoed these concerns.

There is also a power imbalance, he said, with the current process set out in council’s code of conduct and there may be merit in having an independent body that political staff can contact.

“What I’m finding is the process to support employees working in councillors’ offices is inadequate. If I’m being abusive to the mayor’s office employees, they can go to the chief of staff and share their concerns. That mechanism doesn’t exist in councillors’ offices,” the mayor told Postmedia on Monday.

“As a council member, you may feel more comfortable or empowered to go to the integrity commissioner to lodge a complaint against your colleagues. It is very difficult for employees to do that, and that power imbalance is discouraging employees from really sharing what they’re experiencing and feeling.”

The mayor was scheduled to meet with Rice Monday evening.

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‘Chaos in her office’

Ward Anirniq Coun. Erin Rutherford knew there was high turnover in Rice’s office but didn’t know the extent or cause and was surprised to learn of the allegations. To date, 19 people have worked for Rice — nearly three times as many as any other councillor.

“I definitely know that there was chaos in her office,” Rutherford told Postmedia. “I think it was far worse than we could have anticipated.”

She hopes to see an investigation by the integrity commissioner so council can go through a formal process and explore potential sanctions. She also supports whistleblower protections for staff.

Ward Sspomitapi Coun. Jo-Anne Wright was also surprised, although she heard “the odd comment” about Rice but nothing first-hand.

“The allegations are concerning, but they are right now just allegations, and there is a process that those with those concerns can bring forward,” she said. “Following the process with the integrity commissioner is one option.”

Ward tastawiyiniwak Coun. Karen Principe told reporters Tuesday she was also surprised to hear the allegations. Both Principe and Wright said they were unaware there were no whistleblower protections for staff through the code of conduct.

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Ward Nakota Isga Coun. Andrew Knack heard “rumblings” about behaviour in Rice’s office but nothing specific.

“More than just surprising, it’s concerning because these allegations of bullying, not creating a safe working environment, so it’s really troubling to see,” he told reporters Tuesday.

He wants to see a review of how Alberta’s occupational health and safety protections are made available to political staff.

“That is going to be the most important, that making sure the staff that work in the hallway have the same protections that everyone else does.”

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