2 Saint John councillors say they were suspended for supporting striking workers

Two Saint John councillors have been suspended pending a Code of Conduct investigation. 

On Tuesday night, councillors voted in favour of a motion to relieve Joanna Killen and Brent Harris of “all their council committee duties” and to rescind their appointments to various bodies pending the outcome of an investigation under the Code of Conduct bylaw. 

Reacting to the move by the city, Killen and Harris said they were blindsided and will seek legal counsel. 

“We had no idea that they were going to do that — or that they even could,” Killen said in an interview Wednesday.

While the city hasn’t explicitly told them the reason behind the investigation, both councillors believe it’s because they have met personally with striking city workers and publicly stated that they support them. 

On Monday, for example, Harris posted on social media, “I took time to attempt to hear both sides and I stand with labour.”

Brent Harris, a Saint John councillor-at-large, has been vocal on social media about his support for the city’s striking inside workers. (City of Saint John)

Killen made similar online comments in support of the union’s position. 

Members of CUPE Local 486, which represents the city’s inside workers, have been on strike since Sept. 12 after talks broke down over pay.

On Sunday, the union said members voted “overwhelmingly” to turn down the city’s latest proposal. The union said the wages fell below inflation and the city’s wage-escalation policy.

The union has been calling for higher wages that keep in line with the cost of living. But the city has said its offer is fair and follows a new policy to cap wages within its financial means.

Killen said she supports the union’s wage demands. 

“It’s a two-thirds women union and they’re the lowest paid in the city and there’s a cost of living crisis,” she said. “Like we’re just taking all the facts in front of us and that’s where my head was at.”

“And yes, that was different from the rest of council. I agree. But that, to me is what happens when you’re an elected official.”

Harris said they were asking questions about the labour dispute and weren’t getting the answers from city staff or the rest of council. 

“And so we just said, ‘Let’s go up and hear them out. Let’s hear what they have to say and maybe we can get some points to come back with for specific questions.'”

“That’s when everything just started to go haywire.”

He said the pair were accused of violating the Code of Conduct, and “it started to break down pretty rapidly” by the end of August or early September.

“It’s capricious in nature,” Harris said. “Has to be. There’s no other way to see it. And since we were barred from being able to talk about the union realities, it’s a subversion of democracy. I don’t know how else to see it.”

He said they were not negotiating with the union nor compromising negotiations. 

“We were looking for the concerns of the union, so we could have appropriate questions to come back to staff with so we could make up our own mind,” said Harris.

Harris said his relationship with other councillors was “pretty good’ until the strike. 

“As soon as we walked into Local 486’s doors, everybody, every one of them, got their tails up and just stopped talking,” he said. 

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon was asked for more information about council’s motion to suspend Killen and Harris, but has not yet responded.

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