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Conservation Authority staff walk out in protest

Staff say almost everyone working at the Conservation Authority is now looking for another job
Staff at the Conservation Authority walked out this afternoon to protest a toxic work environment

Staff at the North Bay Mattawa Conservation Authority staged a walkout this afternoon to protest a toxic workplace environment and support for the organization's Human Resources Director.

The action comes on the heels of HR Director Mark Bremer going public with his concerns over how the staff is being treated, after repeatedly warning management of the "chaos" that has destroyed staff morale. 

See: Local Conservation Authority in 'total chaos' says its own HR director

And: Conservation Authority changes lock on HR Director's office door

Staff told BayToday that they had recently unionized to get an extra layer of protection from management.

Employees gathered outside the Authority's headquarters at 2 this afternoon during their scheduled break.

They are angry and frustrated by the way they are being treated and are looking for a change in upper management, referring to CAO Chitra Gowda.

One protester told BayToday that they walked out to show the public that it's not just one man's opinion about the troubles in the organization.

"What he's (Bremer) is saying is accurate. He's made a stand. He knows. He was brought in to solve the management staff issues that we've been experiencing and I think he's figured out the way to do it. He has a lot of integrity and he is going to stand up for what is right."

Employees, afraid of reprisals anonymously reached out to the Authority's board of directors in January asking for an investigation of the issue. They are angry that Board members are ignoring the management problem and the resulting fallout. They are also upset about the lack of leadership shown by North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico, a Board member, who has also remained silent.

"We got no response. It makes us feel unvalued. We have a great team here, fantastic. We all get along great with years together. We go above and beyond without even blinking an eye. We've been trusted for decades but now are being made out to be monsters, which is absolutely ridiculous."

The walkout was so complete that one person said, "Only management is left in the office."

Staff say the problem is ongoing but it's the last six months that relations have taken a turn for the worse.

"We thought it couldn't get any worse. It got worse, so we don't know, we have no idea what's coming next." They expect retaliation for their action today.

Employees say the Board is only getting one side of the story, and staff has been ordered not to talk to board members, a sharp contrast to when the former CAO encouraged staff to talk to the Board members.

"I thought I would never leave this job but I think if you took a show of hands everybody here is looking for a job," said one person.

Some employees have over 20 years of experience working for the Authority, so even thinking about quitting is a big step. It would be difficult for the Authority to find replacements with the same skills.

Asked by BayToday what they would like to say to the Board one replied, "Let us have a meeting with the Board without management. If we sat down ourselves without management hopefully they would start to see the other side of the story."

Another replied, "Tell them to get their head out of their ass."

After the protest dispersed, media entered the Conservation Authority to speak with CAO Chitra Gowda. While she was pleasant she wouldn't make a statement surrounding the staff walkout, nor would she allow her picture to be taken. She contacted Board Chair Shelley Belanger by phone who also declined to make any statement about the walkout.

A vague promise was made to say something at another time, but Gowda would not commit to a time or date.

The protesters say at least one person has been fired, two are on stress leave in North Bay because of the work issue.

Jeff Turl

About the Author: Jeff Turl

Jeff is a veteran of the news biz. He's spent a lengthy career in TV, radio, print and online, covering both news and sports. He enjoys free time riding motorcycles and spoiling grandchildren.
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