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Clerk of N.W.T. legislature accused of bullying staff

Current and former staff say that one of the most powerful unelected officials in the Government of the Northwest Territories bullies and humiliates employees and has created a toxic work environment that has gone unchecked by MLAs for years despite complaints.

MLA calls for clerk's resignation; Clerk says past investigations found allegations against him unfounded

Some employees in the Northwest Territories Legislature say it is a toxic working environment, and allege the clerk of the legislature, Tim Mercer, bullies staff. One of the workers is calling on MLAs to fire him. Mercer says the complaints are coming from a small group of disgruntled staff and have already been investigated. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

Current and former staff say that one of the most powerful unelected officials in the Government of the Northwest Territories bullies and humiliates employees and has created a toxic work environment that has gone unchecked by MLAs for years, despite complaints.

The staffers say the clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Tim Mercer, is unable to control his temper, berates and humiliates employees in front of others, and isolates and undermines employees he does not like.

"Those of us who have dared to raise concerns or stand up for ourselves regarding Mr. Mercer's management decisions have been kept silent through a corporate culture of intimidation, ostracization and fear," wrote a committee advisor who works in the clerk's office. In her letter, April Taylor calls on MLAs to fire Mercer.

"Mr. Mercer wields a great deal of power and he abuses his authority with impunity," wrote Taylor. "He has a bad temper that he is either unwilling or unable to keep in check in the workplace."

CBC spoke to four others who have worked with the clerk who say they have either witnessed or been the target of his bullying. The sources asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

In an emailed response to a CBC request for an interview, Mercer said the complaints are coming from a small group of disgruntled employees. He said the allegations against him were investigated twice in 2018 by southern law firms that concluded they were unfounded.

He included excerpts from a report on one of those investigations. It dealt with complaints made by another of his staff.

Mercer, standing at left, speaks during the swearing-in ceremony for the members of the 19th Legislative Assembly. Mercer has held the role of clerk since 2003. (John Last/CBC)

"We found that the complainant and his supporters displayed a uniformly negative view of the Respondent [Mercer], significant frustration with the Respondent's legitimate management decisions, and demonstrated a tendency to exaggerate circumstances and jump to conclusions with respect to the Respondent's conduct and intentions."

Mercer said the criticism is part of a larger conflict.

"There is an uncivil war at play within the current Legislative Assembly, the likes of which I have not witnessed in the previous five Assemblies I have served," wrote the clerk.

"This war is being fuelled by a small group of former and failed Yellowknife politicians who have been unwilling to accept the results of the 2019 election and subsequent leadership selection process."

Staffer suspended for making complaint public

Taylor's letter was discussed by the assembly's Board of Management for hours in a closed meeting on Thursday night.

Taylor says that early the next afternoon there was a knock at her door. A delivery person handed her a letter. It was from deputy clerk Glen Rutland. He informed Taylor she is suspended with pay until March 14 pending an investigation of allegations that she violated her oath of confidentiality, code of conduct and oath of office.

The power imbalance [between Mercer and his staff] is incredible.​​​​​- Former employee

Breaking the rules around secrecy is the most serious offence an MLA or staff member can commit against the rules of consensus government. In his letter, Rutland warns Taylor, "You must refrain from discussing this investigation and any aspect of it with anyone as all matters pertaining to this investigation are confidential."

Rutland's letter does not identify who is making the allegations against Taylor. It also does not say how the clerk's office became aware of Taylor's letter or that it had been discussed by the Board of Management. The MLAs on the board are bound by the same oath of secrecy Taylor is accused of violating.

Recent incidents

Mercer has been clerk of the legislature since 2003. As clerk he is responsible for advising MLAs on the rules of the Legislative Assembly as well as their pensions and benefits. He also provides advice and written statements to the Speaker on issues, such as points of order, arising during sittings of the legislature. The clerk also oversees an office that provides research and administrative assistance to MLAs and their standing committees and manages the public communications functions of the legislature.

During most of his time at the legislature, Mercer has operated in the background. But a year ago there were reports of an incident in which the clerk allegedly got into a heated argument with MLA and cabinet Minister Shane Thompson in a hallway of the legislature. In a Northern News Services story, anonymous witnesses said the confrontation included Mercer slapping Thompson's hand as he pointed at the clerk and then shoving Thompson.

An undated photo of staff in the clerk's office, taken in the Legislative Assembly. Mercer said allegations against him were investigated twice in 2018 by southern law firms that concluded they were unfounded. (Legislative Assembly of the N.W.T.)

In a story in Northern News Services, Mercer admitted he had been in a heated argument with Thompson but denied there had been any physical contact. Thompson refuses to talk about the incident; so does Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson, who reportedly witnessed it.

CBC has obtained a copy of an email that details another confrontation between Mercer and another MLA during a "caucus" meeting last fall. (In consensus government, "caucus" refers to all MLAs, who regularly meet as a group behind closed doors with no records kept of the meetings.)

The email was written by Mercer on Nov. 17 and addressed to Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn, and carbon copied to Speaker Frederick Blake and caucus chair Rylund Johnson.

In truth, there is little meaningful oversight of his conduct.- April Taylor in complaint to board of management

According to Mercer's email, at an Oct. 14 caucus meeting, Norn accused Mercer of belittling a constituent of his who had applied to be the N.W.T. languages commissioner, but failed to get an interview for the job. Mercer said Norn suggested that his constituent had been rejected because she is Indigenous.

"I took great offence to this and challenged you on this unfair characterization of my comments," wrote Mercer in the email. "In doing so I pointed a finger in your direction at which point you responded, 'Are we going to have a problem here?' At this point you left the meeting."

Mercer goes on to say that he later heard from staff and MLAs, none of whom are identified by name, that Norn made disparaging remarks about him following the meeting.

Norn calls for resignation

At a news conference Monday, Norn called on Mercer to resign and for the Board of Management to commission a third-party investigation of Mercer's behaviour. 

"The Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories has become infested with an ethical rot that is undermining the wellbeing of staff, elected officials and even our democracy," Norn said. 

"I now no longer think that an investigation is sufficient to redress the harm that has been done by this man. It is time for this abuse of power to come to an end. We owe our staff and each other justice and must hold the Clerk accountable for the toxic legacy he has created within the walls of this institution." 

Norn accused Mercer of lashing out at MLAs who disagree with him and of micromanaging the work of elected officials.

"When I and other colleagues have pushed back against Clerk's undue influence over our responsibilities to this institution he has responded with anger, demeaning language and, in one case, physical violence against a member of cabinet," Norn said.

Norn also said he stands with any staffers who have been hurt by Mercer's alleged behaviour.

Power imbalance

April Taylor begins her letter to the board of management by saying that she felt she had no other choice but to take the step of appealing directly to the board despite believing it would cost her her job.

"While he reports to the Speaker in theory, in truth there is little meaningful oversight of his conduct as a manager," wrote Taylor.

According to the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act, Speaker Blake is Mercer's supervisor, but they are also friends outside of work.

On his personal Facebook page, Blake refers to Mercer as "my buddy." Several photos show Blake helping Mercer with home renovations, getting ready to go boating on Mercer's sailboat, and relaxing with Mercer on his deck.

A pair of social media posts from speaker Frederick Blake Jr. According to the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act, Blake is Mercer's supervisor, but they are also friends outside of work. (Facebook)

Blake refused CBC's interview request for this story. He responded with a brief email, saying the Board of Management is "dealing with" Taylor's complaints.

"Decisions are made by the Board and it's my job to see them through, this is all I can comment at this time," wrote the Speaker.

One former worker in the clerk's office said, "The power imbalance [between Mercer and his staff] is incredible."

None of the staff at the Legislative Assembly are unionized, and therefore have none of the protections that unionized staff are afforded. There is also no whistleblower legislation protecting Legislative Assembly staff.

Unlike other deputy minister-level senior staff, the clerk can only be terminated by majority vote in the Legislative Assembly on the recommendation of the Board of Management. Other deputy ministers can be terminated by the premier with no involvement of the legislature.

April Taylor, a committee advisor who works in the clerk's office, has called on MLAs to fire Tim Mercer. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Norn and Mercer mediation failed: board

A news release late Monday afternoon from the Board of Management said MLA Norn first raised his concerns on Dec. 11, and the board recommended mediation to "address the dispute" with Mercer, which both men agreed to.

The statement said three mediation sessions were held in January, and on Feb. 5 "the mediator reported to the Speaker that the mediation was unsuccessful." The board met on Friday to "consider the issue."

"The board is determining what next steps to take in regards to all of these matters," the release said.

The Board of Management's statement also said it became aware of a complaint from Nicole Latour, the territory's chief electoral officer, on Feb. 12. It said it discussed both Latour and April Taylor's complaints at the Friday meeting.

"The board remains focused on the management of the Legislative Assembly, and will comment further when appropriate," the statement said.

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