Chiarelli allegations fuel call for sensitivity training

City council's first-ever liaison on women's issues is asking her council colleagues to sign up for training on gender issues, just as news broke of allegations one councillor asked inappropriate questions in a job interview.

Theresa Kavanagh, council's liaison on women's issues, says sessions were already in the works

Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, the first liaison on women's issues and gender issues, is calling on council colleagues to take training as news breaks of allegations against Coun. Rick Chiarelli. (CBC)

City council's first-ever liaison on women's issues is asking her council colleagues — including the mayor — to sign up for training on gender issues, just as news broke of allegations one councillor asked inappropriate questions in a job interview.

Coun. Theresa Kavanagh says she was planning the training sessions before the accusations against Coun. Rick Chiarelli became public, but the revelations show why proper policies and training need to be in place.

On Thursday, CBC Ottawa reported that a woman who'd been seeking a job in the College ward councillor's office had complained to the city's integrity commissioner over questions Chiarelli posed during a job interview.

The woman told CBC that Chiarelli asked her if she'd be open to wearing costumes to events such as Ottawa Comiccon, and alleged Chiarelli then showed her a photo on his cellphone of a former employee dressed up in a revealing costume,

The councillor asked the applicant if she would "go braless,'" the woman alleges.

CBC has agreed not to name the complainant because of her concern that she would have trouble finding employment in the future if she's identified publicly.

She was also concerned she'd face a backlash, especially on social media.

Coun. Rick Chiarelli said through his lawyer that the allegations against him are "spurious." (Laura Osman/ CBC)

Five other employees and former employees in Chiarelli's office have told CBC they also heard the councillor make inappropriate comments in the workplace, with two saying Chiraelli mentioned not wearing a bra to them.

The woman has filed a formal complaint with the city's integrity commission, Robert Marleau. 

Chiarelli didn't respond directly to the allegations, despite several days of attempts to contact him for comment.

But in a letter to the CBC received Sept. 6, his lawyer Bruce Sevigny called the accusations "spurious" and said the councillor has "consistently conducted himself in accordance with the highest moral and ethical standards," and was in "full compliance" with both the City of Ottawa's policy on harassment and workplace violence, and the province's human rights code.

A second letter received Monday from Sevigny said he hasn't been informed of a formal complaint against him and before being contacted by CBC, Chiarelli had no knowledge of these specific allegations.

"If someone is going to make this type of allegation against a respected family man, community builder, and three-decade member of City Council, they should at least be prepared to provide full and fair disclosure, and to stand behind the allegation publicly," the letter states.

A woman who currently works for Chiarelli told CBC the councillor is "a nice person," and said she never witnessed any inappropriate behaviour.

Allegations 'really awful'

Kavanagh called the allegations "disturbing."

"It's something that just upsets you to hear things like this," said Kavanagh.

"You can't help but feel uncomfortable and really awful about anything like this."

Ottawa city councillors and the mayor said Thursday that allegations of inappropriate behaviour against fellow Coun. Rick Chiarelli were "surprising" and "difficult to read." 1:54

The Bay ward councillor said that while the allegations against Chiarelli "are pretty big," there are also more subtle issues that should be addressed with council members through further training "so people understand how to how to talk to people and how to treat people."

The inclusion training that she's asking council members to take is meant "to sort of just open your eyes to things that you didn't realize were not appropriate or the way you treat people, the way you talk to people," she said.

The councillor said that when she worked on Parliament Hill for the NDP, she helped put policies in place to help protect political staffers from harassment. 

"It is the same thing here," said Kavanagh, pointing out that councillors are not all necessarily good managers.

"That's part of the reason why I insisted that we have training sessions for councillors and the mayor."

Unionizing councillors' staff

She said that the allegations against Chiarelli are "a reminder of concerns about imbalance" in workplaces.

One way to help address that imbalance between councillors and their staff is to unionize office workers, suggested Coun. Shawn Menard. 

Coun. Shawn Menard suggests unionizing councillors' staffers to provide the workers more job security. (CBC)

Although councillor staffers are technically city employees — and paid with public money — they are not part of the city's unionized bureaucracy, which means they have far less job security.

"There's a hiring process where you can hire and fire as much as you like as a councillor," said Menard.

"I think that there needs to be more parameters put in place for behaviours that may have a graduated system of consequences."