In court: District of Vanderhoof versus former staff

District of Vanderhoof is in a dispute with the district’s former economic development coordinator, over the reason for her termination.

The District of Vanderhoof is in a dispute with Erin Siemens, the district’s former economic development coordinator, over the reason for her termination.

In her wrongful dismissal suit filed March 25 in the Supreme Court of B.C., and her complaint filed to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, Siemens argues that she was suddenly dismissed for her perceived political beliefs, rather than simply due to the closure of her department as she was told.

On Nov. 13, the tribunal denied the district’s application to dismiss the case, as the district had not submitted evidence that disproves the allegations, states the tribunal in its decision.

The onus is now on Siemens to prove her allegations to the Human Rights Tribunal.

“In my view, on the basis of all the materials filed, Ms. Siemens’ complaint rises well above speculation or conjecture,” states Bernd Walter, chair of the tribunal.

Walter adds that as an assessment of all the evidence submitted by both parties, the tribunal’s decision for the case to remain in court did not require factual findings. The burden lay on the district to show that Siemens has no reasonable prospect of success in establishing her case of political discrimination.

According to the tribunal, the district argues a legitimate business or reorganization decision for Siemens’s dismissal, but the mayor and its councillors did not provide a document trail for the tribunal “to clearly conclude when the District’s restructuring strategy was planned or implemented.”

The district also “did not file any evidence or affidavits from the District’s [former] CAO denying his conversations with Ms. Siemens,” the tribunal states in its decision.

According to Siemens’ file of civil claim, in her termination meeting, the district’s former chief administrative officer Evan Parliament allegedly alluded to her that she was fired due to her friendship and association with former mayoral candidate Jessi Wilson.

Siemens appeared at public events leading up to the 2014 civic election with Wilson, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent mayor Gerry Thiessen.

Mayor Thiessen and six incumbent councillors were re-elected in November 2014. In January 2015 Siemens was dismissed from her job.

Parliament allegedly added that he told Vanderhoof’s mayor and six councillors that Siemens’ appeared alliance with Wilson was not a problem, but “these seven men’s egos can’t accept what’s happened.”

In its response to the civil claim, the district denies that the reason for her termination was related to her perceived political views or alliances, and states that some of the alleged conversations did not occur or did not occur as and when indicated by Siemens.

The district further states that it quickly began strategic planning after the election in 2014 and decided to eliminate its economic development department, as the development of natural resources slowed down in the region.

As the civil case remains before court, Siemens is claiming general and punitive damages for her alleged wrongful dismissal, interest, costs, and other relief as court deems just.

She said she has not only lost her salary and other employment benefits, but has also suffered from emotional damage with the dismissal, as she has been unable to find new work in Vanderhoof with her damaged reputation.

However, the district states that when Siemens’ contract was terminated in January, not only was reasonable notice given, but her salary, benefits, and pension contributions continued until the end of April. It further states that Siemens’ job search “ought not to be limited to within the boundaries of the District of Vanderhoof, as those seeking to work for local governments are often required to move around the Province to obtain work.”

The next hearing date was undetermined at press time.

 

Timeline of events:

In July 2012, Siemens started her role as the District of Vanderhoof’s economic development officer, the contract of which included a six-month probation and a starting salary of $61,722.

In late fall 2012 and early 2013, the district underwent an organizational review, where Siemens’ skills were determined to be inconsistent with the duties of her original position, according to the district. Her position was changed to economic development coordinator and her salary was reduced to $52,000.

In January 2013, Siemens’ six-month probation period was extended to the end of April 2013.

In August 2013, the district hired now former CAO Evan Parliament, whose skills included economic development, the district states.

During 2014, the development of natural resources — such as forestry, mining, liquid natural gas, and agriculture — were slowing in Vanderhoof and its surrounding area, leading to negative economic impacts on the community, its neighbours, and north central B.C., the district adds.

In November 2014 during Vanderhoof’s civic election, mayoral candidate Jessi Wilson ran unsuccessfully against current mayor Gerry Thiessen.

Following the election, the district states that its mayor and council quickly began strategic planning, and determined that it was in the district’s best interest to eliminate its economic development department and transfer its duties to the CAO and other staff.

On Jan. 13, 2015, the district terminated its contract with Siemens. Parliament, the district’s CAO at the time, met with Siemens for a termination meeting.

At the meeting, Siemens was informed that she was dismissed due to her department’s closure.

As the meeting continued, Parliament alluded that her termination was due to her friendship with mayoral candidate Wilson, Siemens states in her civil claim.

In mid-August 2015, Parliament left his position and Tom Clement, the community development officer at the time, became the new CAO.

December 2015: The district’s economic development department remains vacant.