St. John's can keep payouts to departing staffers secret, at least for now

·3 min read
According to a report by the information commissioner, the City of St. John's
According to a report by the information commissioner, the City of St. John's

Newfoundland and Labrador's transparency watchdog says St. John's city council doesn't have to reveal how much the exodus of a half-dozen senior staffers is costing taxpayers — although the information might not stay under wraps permanently.

The six employees recently left St. John's Sports and Entertainment, the turmoil-racked corporation that operates Mary Brown's Centre and the adjacent convention centre.

City officials contended that revealing any settlement amounts already paid will compromise its ability to continue with remaining negotiations — and possible litigation.

In a report released publicly Tuesday, information commissioner Michael Harvey agreed.

He found that "in the current circumstances, the city could continue to withhold the information … but that the situation was fluid and that the city may not be entitled to withhold the information indefinitely."

In the past, the city has released details of financial packages offered to departing employees.

But this time, officials refused, saying that disclosing those payouts would be harmful to the city's financial or economic interests.

CBC News appealed that decision, arguing that the amount of public money paid in remuneration to civil servants is public information, under provincial access-to-information laws.

"While I generally agree with [CBC News] that the information in question (specifically remuneration) is, generally, subject to disclosure … the city may withhold the information for the time being," Harvey wrote in his report.

Andrew Wiseman/CBC
Andrew Wiseman/CBC

In its submissions to the commissioner, the city linked the payouts to allegations of harassment at St. John's Sports and Entertainment.

According to Harvey's report, the city is concerned that the amounts sought were not solely related to traditional factors associated with a retirement, layoff, or termination without cause.

"This situation is separate; there is the provided workplace investigation and another ongoing one dealing with similar allegations," the city said in its submission to Harvey, according to his report.

"An employee citing the same experiences and being in the same situations, upon being made aware of payments received by a departed employee, would consider such payments to '…provide a baseline by which to pursue their own settlement negotiations.'"

Harvey said he was asked by the city to consider "the additional damages or entitlements that they may now be claiming from similar or the same events."

The commissioner highlighted the "particular circumstances" of potential settlements — a previous and an ongoing workplace investigation involving St. John's Sports and Entertainment arising from alleged incidents of workplace harassment that span from 2018 to 2021.

The city told the commissioner that some of the half-dozen departed staff have reached settlement agreements, while others have not.

"The city has provided sufficient details to show that some negotiations are ongoing, specifically in relation to employees leaving their positions because of the alleged workplace harassment," Harvey wrote.

At least one individual has indicated they intend to pursue a legal claim in court.

"The city asserts that the situation remains fluid and that there are further considerations at play, which we have decided not to include in this report," the commissioner wrote.

Harvey noted if the city settles all negotiations or the two-year limitation period passes without any lawsuits being filed, the city "would have a much more difficult job of meeting its burden of proof in withholding this information."

Peter Cowan/CBC
Peter Cowan/CBC

In an email to CBC News, the city said, "We respect the commissioner's recommendations and will adhere to the same."

By law, CBC News has 10 business days to decide whether to appeal the commissioner's decision to Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court.

City taxpayers provide an annual subsidy to keep St. John's Sports and Entertainment running.

In 2022, according to city budget documents, that's expected to cost just over $5.1 million.

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