UNBC 'whistle blower' claims wrongful dismissal

A former University of Northern British Columbia employee says she was wrongfully dismissed from her position because she blew the whistle on alleged improper conduct by the university's upper management.

Specifically, in a notice of claim filed at the Prince George courthouse last week, Heather Sanford is accusing acting president Geoffrey Payne and board of governors chair Lee Ongman of undermining her efforts to ensure the board's business was being conducted transparently.

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For roughly 4 1/2 years ending in March, Sanford held down the job of university secretary.

Noting she is a non-practicing member of the Nova Scotia bar in good standing, Sanford says she was responsible for "ensuring the effective and efficient operation of UNBC's administrative and academic governing bodies" including the board of governors and senate. Those duties included coordinating meetings and maintaining records and providing advice on governance issues and best practices.

Sanford says the trouble began in mid-December 2019 when, at the request of human resources director Kerry Roberts, Ongman approved without the board's endorsement a two-per-cent increase to the salary paid to UNBC's then-president Daniel Weeks, retroactive to July 2019.

Further, Sanford says Ongman signed a performance review to support the increase without any actual review having been completed by Ongman or the board and issued the approval on the letterhead of Sanford's office, both without her knowledge and consent.

When she became aware of the action, Sanford says she immediately raised concerns with Ongman and Roberts and was told Ongman took the step when Roberts said it was the usual process. Ongman then indicated she felt she had been duped, according to Sanford.

In turn, Sanford says she advised Ongman that the increase and performance review would have to be disclosed at its January 2020 meetings and the materials were included in the respective agenda packages.

Then, in January, Weeks announced interim vice president of finance Barb Daigle would be leaving UNBC, but information about Daigle's end-of-employment or severance was not included in the board's meeting for that month. Just prior to the meeting, Sanford says she managed to obtain the agreement from associate vice president of finance Colleen Smith and found Weeks has signed it in mid-December without board approval.

Sanford says she alerted Ongman and, because Weeks was by then on medical leave, she then told Payne he needs to disclose payment of Daigle's severance to the board, even if it had not granted approval, because it's public information.

When Week's salary increase was raised during the board meeting, Sanford says Ongman told the board she acted on advice and added that because the B.C. Public Sector Employers' Council, which manages the provincial government's labour relations, approved the hike, the board's "own governance process was not important."

In turn, Sanford says she asked that the meeting's record show Ongman acted on the advice of Roberts, not her office, and that the University Secretariat letterhead was used without her knowledge or consent.

When questions were raised regarding Daigle's appointment, "which had not been approved by or provided to the Board," her departure, Payne's appointment and Weeks' medical leave, Sanford says Ongman refused to entertain discussions on any of those matters but said there would be a special meeting within a few weeks to address them.

The meeting was scheduled for February 18. Following her standard practice, Sanford says she prepared a draft agenda "based on the questions and issues that had been raised and were unanswered" during the January board meetings and on questions raised after the meeting by individual board members.

Sanford says she then directed one of her subordinates to circulate the draft agenda to all board members, including Payne and Ongman, for comment and direction and adds it was standard practice to contact board members directly on such items without approval from the president.

In a meeting with Roberts on Feb. 12, Sanford says she outlined her concerns about the way the matter had been handled and, two days later, she received a letter from Payne admonishing her for circulating the draft agenda without his or Ongman's knowledge and approval.

On the morning of the special meeting, Sandford says she was told she was not needed and it proceeded behind closed doors. Two days later, Weeks announced his resignation and the day after, Payne convened a special board meeting for that afternoon without Sanford's involvement, which Sanford says was a first since her office was created in October 2015.

Later the same day, UNBC issued a press release saying Payne was appointed interim president.

Sanford says she subsequently wrote to Ongman and three others related to the board raising her concerns about a failure to follow proper procedure regarding the special meeting. Her letter drew no response and, on Feb. 28, Payne informed her that at the special meeting, the board also decided to engage a consultant to review governance at UNBC and that she would not be involved.

Saying her work environment had become toxic, Sanford went on stress leave on March 1 and, while she was away, she says Payne and Ongman amended the agenda for that month's board meeting, deleting an item regarding board rules and adding one about the external review.

When Sanford returned on March 10, she says she wrote to Ongman and Payne saying she felt she was being undermined and that her core work was being removed in retaliation over her effort to ensure transparency surrounding the board's business.

The next day, Sanford says she was directed to meet with Payne and Roberts on March 13. And on that day, Payne told Sanford her position was being eliminated for budgetary reasons and that "it was 'in no way a termination.'"

But Sanford says otherwise, claiming she was "unduly and unfairly bullied and harassed" by Payne and Ongman because she had "blown the whistle on their conduct and that of Weeks, Daigle and Roberts, seeking to expose and remedy their breaches of Board Rules policy and practice."

A month later, former UNBC president Charles Jago was appointed special advisor on governance at the university.

UNBC spokesman Matt Wood declined to comment because it is a legal and human resources issue. UNBC has not yet filed a response and none of the allegations have yet been tested in court.

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