Political staffers fear speaking up, councillors told

City councillors and their staff shared personal stories Tuesday as a committee considered a review of hiring and interview practices at city hall, which was sparked by last fall's allegations against Coun. Rick Chiarelli.

Allegations against Coun. Rick Chiarelli led to clerk's review of hiring, interview practices

Each of Ottawa's 23 city councillors hires staff and manages their office budget independently. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

As a councillor's assistant, Fiona Mitchell says she's dealt with many issues for which there's no template or manual, from helping residents cope with the tragedy of the Westboro bus crash, to her boss, Coun. Jeff Leiper, suffering a heart attack.

Last fall, when women who had worked for Coun. Rick Chiarelli alleged they'd been asked to wear revealing clothing and described other inappropriate behaviour, Mitchell became upset.

When it is addressed, often the person bringing it forward will at some point pay a price for that.​​​​​​- Coun. Catherine McKenney

"These were our colleagues," she said Tuesday. "What resonated with me was many alleged victims reported feeling apprehensive about bringing allegations forward for fear of repercussions to themselves personally, or their careers."

Mitchell took the unusual step of addressing councillors during Tuesday's finance and economic development committee meeting, where she offered feedback on recommendations the city clerk has made to improve hiring of political staffers at Ottawa city hall.

Mitchell welcomes a recommendation to provide extra training for new councillors on how to recruit and hire, and a move to provide formal orientation sessions for new staffers.

But for her, the most important improvement is making sure political staff, who aren't unionized and whose roles and pay vary from councillor to councillor, know where to turn when trouble arises — advice she said she never received.

Mitchell also suggested political staff be given more opportunities to socialize so they have more "friendly faces" to confide in.

Stories from councillors' row

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who was also a councillor's assistant, recalled one colleague who had been sexually harassed on the job. The two had conversations about coming forward, but McKenney said in the end, the woman chose not to for fear of the potential impact on her career.

"This is so systemic," said McKenney. "Any time we have examples of sexual harassment, of racism, of homophobia in our workplace.... Most of the time it's not addressed. When it is addressed, often the person bringing it forward will at some point pay a price for that."

A sign points the way to councillors' offices at Ottawa city hall. Some councillors were looking for more detailed recommendations, such as a rule dictating interviews take place in a city building. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt described how he once advised another councillor's assistant to quit because of how they were being treated. He agreed assistants need to know where to turn for help, but said that's just the first step.

As for the formal recommendations, Coun. Keith Egli said he was surprised the city clerk didn't advise specific changes such as requiring a third person be in the room for a job interview, or requiring interviews take place in a city building.

"Those are basic safeguards that would make people more comfortable in the process," Egli said.

The report rises to city council for approval July 15.

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