Blocking BlackBerry wrong, report finds

The chief commissioner of Strathcona County did not have the authority to deny a councillor access to his email and BlackBerry, an independent report found.
Coun. Jason Gariepy found access to his computer and BlackBerry was cut without notice in September. (CBC) ((CBC))
The chief commissioner of Strathcona County did not have the authority to deny a councillor access to his email and BlackBerry, an independent report found.

"[Robyn Singleton] acted in good faith in response to an incident but did not have the authority to suspend Councillor [Jason] Gariepy's communications," consultant George Cuff wrote in his report presented to the county council Thursday.

Gariepy's access was cut off temporarily on Sept. 8 after he sent an email to his fellow councillors and county staff criticizing a news release from the mayor's office. The release praised area MLAs for their work on the Sherwood Park hospital. 

Singleton accused Gariepy of intimidating the head of communications by criticizing her in front of her staff. Gariepy said he sent the email to all 900 county employees by mistake; it was only intended for councillors and senior managers.

But Cuff felt that Singleton was "pushing back" against someone who had belittled one of his staff members.

"I admire the reaction by the chief commissioner ... he acted, in my opinion, primarily because he wished to send a message that aggressive, demeaning behaviour by a councillor towards a staff member will not be tolerated."

Gariepy says the report is a vindication for him but wishes he had handled the situation differently. He now plans to apologize to the communiciations staff member who bore the brunt of his criticisms about the news release.

"Now that the review is complete, I think the time is appropriate to let her know that if she took any offence to any of my comments, that was not the intention," he said.

"The intention was simply to let her know that I had sent an email and that the news release had serious concerns for the municipality."

Incident a "wake-up call"

Cuff, the president of George Cuff Associates and former mayor of Spruce Grove, was hired by Strathcona County to review the incident and make recommendations.

He called his report a "wake-up call" for council. 

He recommended the county develop a clearly defined policy on how councillors interact with staff. It should also develop a policy on how the mayor and council send out press releases on matters considered "major or sensitive," he said.

Cuff also suggested any actions or comments towards staff deemed inappropriate be referred to the mayor and be handled in a special meeting of council.

The news release that angered Gariepy was released Sept 7. In it, Mayor Cathy Olesen praised the "tireless efforts" of the two area MLAs for moving the Sherwood Park hospital project forward.

The release came within days of revelations that the facility won't be a hospital when it opens in 2013. It will have no acute-care beds and will operate as a regional medical clinic.

According to the report, after the email was sent, Gariepy approached a staff member in the county's communications office.

Eyewitnesses said they heard "considerable tension" in Gariepy's voice as he spoke to the woman in an "agitated and aggressive manner." He also questioned her competence and her ability to remain in the job, Cuff wrote.

Cuff also criticized the county for not having policies for how councillors behave.

"The current county policies are not satisfactory in terms of identifying or guiding appropriate council behaviour," he wrote.