VERNON, B.C. – An arbitration board says two employees were wrongfully dismissed from their jobs with the fire department in Vernon, B.C., after a videotape showed them having sexual relations in the fire chief’s office.
The pair were fired two days after the incident in March 2018, but their union grieved the dismissals and proposed four-month suspensions.
A camera had been installed in the office several months earlier after David Lind, who was the interim chief at the time, became concerned that someone might be accessing his locked file cabinet, which contained sensitive staffing and budget documents.
A majority of the arbitration board found that while fire captain Brent Bond and dispatcher Cara-Leigh Manahan’s conduct was worthy of “harsh discipline,” the dismissal was an “excessive disciplinary response.”
Bond is to be reinstated effective Feb. 1, with no loss of seniority or benefits.
The board ordered Manahan to be reinstated without loss of seniority or service but since dispatch services for the department have been contracted out, the employer must compensate her for the severance or any other payment she would have received when her job was terminated.
Neither will be compensated for lost wages during the time they were fired.
The Arbitrators Association of B.C. says in its decision released Tuesday that the two employees became close friends in early 2017 and developed a sexual relationship away from work later that year.
“Although Capt. Bond knew the relationship was inappropriate, he did not take any steps to try to have him and Ms. Manahan assigned different shifts,” James Dorsey, chair of the arbitrators association, wrote in the decision.
A disciplinary suspension of five months will also be on Bond’s employment record and he will be demoted to the rank of first class firefighter until Feb. 1, 2022, when he will be reinstated to the rank of captain.
“Key to this consideration ought to be that the grievors have already suffered a heavy penalty,” said Dorsey. “They have undergone embarrassment, dishonour, rumours in the community and destruction of their family life. This is (a) far harsher penalty than could be ordered by an arbitrator.”
The union had applied to have Bond and Manahan remain anonymous, which the board denied.
“There is no exceptional personal privacy circumstances or persuasive labour relations reason in this situation that justifies departing from the open court principle,” said Dorsey.
The decision by the board to reinstate Bond and Manahan was not unanimous.
John McKearney, retired chief of the Vancouver Fire Department, said the activity between Bond and Manahan must be considered cause for termination.
“The conduct was antithetical to Bond’s responsibility as captain and leader of the shift and has created a poison work environment for other females in the hall, and for males,” he wrote. ‘”His actions were a gross violation of his duty to create a welcoming work environment for all, and especially for women.”
Will Pearce, chief administrative officer for the City of Vernon, said he is disappointed in the decision of the arbitration board.
“It sends entirely the wrong message to fire personnel across the country and to staff of the City of Vernon,” he said. “It is not now and never will be acceptable or ethical for a direct supervisor to engage in a sexual relationship with junior and subordinate staff.”
The city is “exploring a range of options” in response to the arbitration decision, Pearce said.