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Town director fired after alleging harrasment

(Jul2112) Faced with a harassment complaint against one of their own, Fort Erie town councillors fired the complainant, Heather Salter, the Town solicitor for five years until April 16, 2012 at 4 p.m.

Councillors Paul Collard, John Hill, Don Lubberts and Bob Steckley made the decision in a 4-3 vote taken after two lengthy closed-door meetings in March and April.

“I felt that I had been experiencing some difficulties and harassing behaviours so I made a complaint that was considered and the conclusion was that I should leave the corporation,” Salter said shortly after the Town issued a press release Friday.

“The Town of Fort Erie and its in-house solicitor have reached a resolution concerning the end of their employment relationship,” states the release.

“Oh absolutely, absolutely I’m very satisfied,” Salter said, although she would not divulge the terms of the settlement.

“I agreed not to disclose that information. That’s usual in these sorts of situations,” she said. “It’s a question between the Town and its citizens. If there are citizens who feel strongly about this and want to have that information, then they need to pursue those questions at town hall. I don’t have any problems with it being disclosed. I’m willing to waive my privacy rights and have that information provided to the public. If the Town doesn’t feel it should be released, they can explain to their citizens why not.”

Neither Mayor Doug Martin nor acting CAO Ron Tripp would comment on the terms of the severance settlement.

But Martin said it should be made public “if council wants to be open and transparent.”

Salter would not say what the harassing behaviours were that she complained about nor respond to gossip that a councillor had rifled through files in her office when she was out.

“That’s all water under the bridge now,” she said. “Any of the particulars related to that are of no consequence any longer, just not relevant any more.”

In settling the case, Salter did not withdraw her allegations and the Town did not admit any liability, she said. “There were no specifics provided to me in terms of why I was terminated.”

Endgame begins

The endgame in this match began in February when Martin gave notice to hold a closed session at a future meeting to discuss “member of council actions relative to ongoing litigation involving the municipality.”

The meeting was originally expected to be held March 19, but when the day came, Martin deferred it for two weeks because council had learned a few days earlier that the slots casino would close.

Paul Collard, though, couldn’t wait to squash that bug and insisted it be dealt with as originally scheduled.

“This is a pretty serious matter,” he said then.

Council went into closed session March 26 to discuss Salter’s complaints.

After 34 minutes, she left the meeting, and the Town’s human resources manager Tom Mather “educated council on certain policies relative to the personal matter about an identifiable individual” for another two and a half hours.

Council came out of closed session with the situation unresolved and held another closed session on April 10.

Following that two hour meeting, council came into open session and voted 4-3 on a motion that “staff be directed to act in accordance with instructions of council” – Salter’s termination warrant.

“It was not an entirely unanticipated consequence,” Salter said. “The relationship was under stress. The fact that it ended the way it did didn’t come as a huge shock or surprise to me. That was the way it went and I was fine with it.”

The relationship went south fast – almost immediately after council started its term following the 2010 election when Lubberts, Hill, Collard and Steckley wanted Salter to find a way to break the agreement with the Molinaro Group to build the Bay Beach condominium project.

Unsatisfied with Salter’s response that breaking the contract would entail a large cost, the anti-condo bloc of councillors paid $20,000 for an outside lawyer who ultimately told them the same thing.

That was just the start.

Council meetings were exercises in exasperation as the Town solicitor was unable to convince councillors – especially Lubberts – that she knew what she was talking about, constantly battling with them every time condo opponents forwarded objection after objection after interminable objection.

Lubberts even accused Salter and others of falsifying documents that were submitted to the Ontario Municipal Board when the Bay Beach project was appealed.

He later apologized publicly, not once, but twice in open session of council.

“Everybody who attended council meetings or was familiar with that saw what was happening on a weekly basis,” Salter said.

In spite of the harassment, she said her time in Fort Erie was rewarding and provided opportunities for professional growth.

“I was very, very happy to take the position in Fort Erie and it was a terrific five years. I can’t say enough about how good the staff in Fort Erie are, how wonderful they are to work with, how exceptionally talented they are and I really, really miss them.

“I got a chance to do a lot of really interesting things in Fort Erie and a lot of good work.

“I had the opportunity to work with truly excellent people. The talent on staff – people who are there now, people who have left – is exceptional and the kind of people you work with who make you want to do your best and try your hardest.

“The staff at town hall are a great talented group of people and I hope the citizens of Fort Erie recognize that these people work extremely hard.

“We had a lot of interesting work at the Town. One of the fun things about the Town is it really punches above its weight.”

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