December 2, 2022

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White Rock coun. takes legal action against city following bullying allegations

White Rock Coun. Erika Johanson is taking legal action against the city over what she claims are false allegations she bullied and harassed staff.

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A White Rock councillor is taking legal action against the city for measures it took following what she says were false allegations that she bullied and harassed city staff.

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Coun. Erika Johanson, who was elected to council in 2018, claims that the dispute arose from inquiries about budgeting matters she was making last year with the city’s then-director of finance.

She says that in response to those inquiries, in June 2021 she received an email from Guillermo Ferrero, the city’s chief administrative officer, reprimanding her for alleged bullying and harassment of city staff, and threatening to impose a penalty on her if the alleged conduct continued.

On July 7, 2021, in response to an email sent by Johanson on the same date, Ferrero, the most senior staff member in the city, sent an email concluding that she had engaged in bullying and harassment, says Johanson’s petition filed in B.C. Supreme Court.

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Johanson, who denies the allegations and says no formal complaints have been filed against her, says that she was told that she would no longer be allowed to communicate with city staff while at the same time other members of council were allowed to continue to communicate directly with city staff.

“My reputation has been ruined within council,” Johanson said Monday. “I am unable to do my job.”

The petition notes that before the dispute the city had enacted a policy stating that communications involving the mayor, council and city staff were to be directed through the chief administrative officer but that at the time in question the policy wasn’t being enforced.

Johanson’s petition, which names the City of White Rock as the respondent, seeks a judicial review of Ferrero’s decision to order her to refrain from contacting city staff directly.

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“The City of White Rock failed to act fairly in all the circumstances by making a final administrative decision and imposing a penalty absent procedural fairness and due process,” says the petition. “As a result the petitioner did not know the case against her or have an opportunity to respond to it. By doing so, the City of White Rock made a reviewable error and breached the rules of procedural fairness and due process.”

An affidavit filed by Johanson reveals increasingly tense email exchanges involving Johanson and Ferrero.

In a June 16 email to then-finance director Colleen Ponzini and cc’ing Ferrero as well as members of council, Johanson notes that she had asked Ponzini if the city had departmental level budgets and Ponzini had answered in the affirmative. Johanson says that she was unable to find anything remotely resembling such budgets.

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“I understand your eagerness to get started on this topic and I can assure you that staff has heard your concerns,” replies Ferrero, who adds that such budgets are prepared by staff internally and were provided to council during the 2021 budget cycle as high-level figures in the reports provided.

Johanson replies that she wants to make “perfectly clear” that there are no department budgets in a format that council can review.

In another email she expresses concern about a response she got from Ponzini, saying: “As a project manager during my career, I’d be fired ASAP if I gave such a response.”

A short while late, Ferrero said: “Your email is inappropriate and unacceptable, and I will be setting up a meeting to discuss my concerns with you and the mayor (Darryl Walker) as soon as possible.”

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Ferrero said he had had multiple discussions with Walker, and the mayor had indicated his support for his approach.

Umar Sheikh, Johanson’s lawyer, said the case was “extremely unique” in the sense that most city councillors in B.C. have very limited rights when it comes to actions against municipalities.

“She’s certainly going through a lot of stress and is doing her best to represent the citizens of White Rock,” he said of his client.

No response has yet been filed to the petition, which contains allegations that have not been tested in court.

Amanda Silvers, manager of communications and government relations for the city, said in an email that as the matter was before the courts there would be no comment.

Walker didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

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twitter.com/keithrfraser


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