Two residents return to council as Sebben considers suspending politics
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Two residents return to council as Sebben considers suspending politics

Stratford councillor wants overhaul of city’s respect in the workplace policy

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At least one Stratford councillor is calling for the suspension of a widely criticised respect in the workplace policy which led to three local residents being banned from the city for three months.

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After tabling the motion on Monday, Councilman Cody Sebben intends to hold a vote at the July 22 council meeting to do just that.

After the ban ended last week, two residents — Barb Shaughnessy and Mike Sullivan — returned as delegations to speak before council in support of Sebben’s upcoming motion. Before starting his presentation, Sullivan asked all councilors to close their laptops after accusing one of reading an online seed catalog at the beginning of the meeting. Sullivan said the city council did not fully understand the implications of the respect in the workplace policy when it was approved last year. The policy reads:“Trying to treat voters as (city) employees,” he said.

“Workplace policies that apply to employee relations are probably fine, but they shouldn’t be applied to members of the public in the same way they are to voters in your municipality,” Sullivan said.

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In his remarks, Sullivan cited the case of Bracken vs. Fort Erie, in which the city issued a trespassing warning to a resident who staff said made them feel unsafe. But the Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that Fred Bracken, while aggressive, was not threatening or aggressive, and that Fort Erie’s notice violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“He did not engage in violence or threaten violence against anyone. That’s the trigger. That’s the moment when the mayor and the police will act. But until then … we can speak freely and express our opinions. That’s what it means to live in Canada,” Sullivan said.

“In a free and democratic society, citizens cannot be handcuffed and removed from public spaces traditionally used to express dissent because of the discomfort their protest causes,” he said.

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While many Ontario cities have similar workplace policies, those policies, Sullivan said, do not apply to the public. Some of those cities, he added, actually cite the Court of Appeal ruling in their policies.

“The way this policy (in Stratford) was implemented created chaos, illegally restricted charter rights (and) ultimately gave Stratford a black eye. A thorough review is needed before further damage is done,” he said.

Speaking to the Beacon Herald on Tuesday, Sebben said he had heard concerns from “a lot of people” about the policy and its application, and that he shared those concerns.

“The policy was intended to create a better atmosphere and workplace. At least in my opinion, it has certainly done the opposite. The last few months have been very, very tense at the council,” he said.

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The situation that has been developing at city hall since April has led residents to tell Sebben they are wary of voicing their opposition to other, unrelated city actions, he said.

“Instead of encouraging community engagement, (they’ve done) a lot to discourage it. . . . It takes a lot to get someone to get involved and come talk to council. And then when you have people listening to other people’s experiences with (the policy) and the way it’s been implemented recently, that discourages people even more,” Sebben said.

In addition to suspending the policy, Sebben wants it to be considered as a way to examine its pitfalls, which included two council meetings and a subcommittee meeting that were either cut short or canceled altogether before they began. Sebben was one of two councilors, along with Geza Wordofy, to vote against ending the June 24 meeting early.

“I think (the policy) is needed. I think in its current form, in my opinion, it doesn’t work in the way I certainly intended it to,” the councilman said.

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