Two suspended Greater Victoria School District board trustees have filed civil suits in attempts to be reinstated, claiming that their punishment for disparaging Twitter comments against district staff was unreasonable and unfair.
The district announced its decision to censure and suspend trustees Diane McNally and Rob Paynter on Feb. 11, noting a third-party investigation substantiated two staff members’ summer 2021 complaints of harassment and bullying by two trustees.
McNally and Paynter’s civil suits, separately filed on Feb. 28, are both against the Board of Education of SD61 and call for the suspensions to be set aside.
Their civil submissions reject that the board has the legal authority to effectively remove them from office, given their suspensions last until October when trustee elections are to take place. However, both claim that even if the board does have such power, the punishments are disproportionate and unreasonable responses to their conduct.
Both civil petitions say the trustees’ conduct doesn’t meet the standards and proper procedures not followed – as set out in the School Act – for disqualifying or removing an elected trustee from office.
Paynter’s claim says the board breached its duty to uphold procedural fairness by “failing to provide him with an opportunity to properly respond to the claims being made against him.”
Similarly, McNally’s suit claims procedural fairness was breached because the board proceeded with the investigation in an unfair manner and didn’t give her adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations against her.
Both court documents challenge the fairness of how the board handled the situation after it received the third-party report in January, as well as the investigation itself. McNally, for example, claims she was willing to participate in the investigation, but her request to meet with the investigator went unanswered. She also claims she wasn’t given any indication that she could be suspended at the time of the investigation invite.
Paynter’s claim says the board failed to make it clear it was considering suspending him, and relied on “an evolving set of reasons to support its decision.” The board rationalized his suspension based on the investigator’s findings, but its decision also drew from conduct that predated and was not connected to the investigation, the claim adds.
In the event the courts find the board decision should be reconsidered, McNally and Paynter’s suits also request that the court ensure any subsequent sanctions do not effectively prevent them from carrying out their duties as trustees.
In a five-page letter posted to the district’s website on Feb. 24, board chair Ryan Painter wrote that there have been issues with inappropriate interactions between trustees and district staff since the last board election in late 2018.
In May 2021, concerns were again raised about trustees using social media to disparage employees including the superintendent, who subsequently left the district. Tweets by McNally and Paynter were part of that concern, Painter wrote.
Their suspensions came as a result of July 2021 complaints, one from district secretary-treasurer Kim Morris of bullying and harassment via disparaging comments made on social media, and a separate complaint from an unnamed staff member.
Painter said the decision was in line with the Workers Compensation Act and its obligation to protect employees from bullying and harassing behaviour.
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