Union confident in overturning Kamloops changes to bylaw officer duties | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Union confident in overturning Kamloops changes to bylaw officer duties

The union that represents municipal employees in Kamloops promised to fight the City's restructuring of its bylaw officer division, and they're feeling confident after taking the first steps in that legal battle.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees is arguing that the City of Kamloops breached the collective bargaining agreement by announcing the change, which impacted bylaw officers who could not meet the new hiring requirements.

The City of Kamloops announced a change of the Bylaw Services Division into the Community Services Division in September 2020, but arbitration to dispute the City's breach of a collective agreement is ongoing and a preliminary hearing was held on Aug. 16.

Prior to the transition, there were 18 full-time and five part-time bylaw officers. Of those, just five remained on the job after the transition into Community Service Officers, according to the union.

Others either retired, quit or were moved into other staff positions.

"The five bylaw officers that remain have said to us, 'our jobs have not changed,'" national representative for the Kamloops branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Harry Nott, said.

The rebranding widened the variety of service calls bylaw officers can respond to, much of which are designed to lessen the load on RCMP officers, but it was coupled with more stringent hiring requirements.

The change to Community Service Officers, in large part, was meant to allow for a response to social issues around the city. Along with a required fitness test, officers will be trained in how best to deal with people struggling with mental health-related issues.

READ MORE: How Kamloops is trying to deal with a wide range of social issues facing all cities in B.C.

Although bylaw enforcement includes responses to a wide array of service calls, like animal issues, parking and homeless encampments, one of the benefits from the Community Service Officer program is an expanded training regiment meant to aid those officers in dealing with street-entrenched people and connect them with services.

"(Community Service Officers) are now better equipped to deal with social issues as they are being provided training with advanced skills to investigate a variety of files, and offer solutions for those files, expanding our role into property management, business licensing, social issues and jail operations," City communications manager Wendy Heshka said in an email to iNFOnews.ca.

She added that while service calls have increased by 27% since the transition, costs for the program have not increased and remain within budgets previously set for that department.

Bylaw Officers were already training to deal with mental health-related calls in 2018, which was a response to growing concerns since the beginning of the opioid crisis.

"It's going to be a colossal waste of taxpayers' money if the union is successful with this," national union representative Harry Nott said, referring to the costs of the transition and the need to hire more employees.

The program was initially scheduled to have fully rolled out in September 2021, but Community Services manager Tammy Blundell told iNFOnews.ca that date has been set back because they have not hired enough new staff.

"We're still recruiting actively," Blundell said.

As for the more stringent hiring requirements, like the fitness test, Nott said they shouldn't be required for the role the Community Service Officers take on.

"We asked the employer (the City) to negotiate around this from the start and they ramrodded their way through," Nott said.

The union, the City and their respective lawyers met with an arbitrator on Aug. 16 for a preliminary hearing.

READ MORE: Kamloops missed out on $1M in grant money for homeless supports

In March 2022, the arbitration hearing is scheduled to proceed, which will include witness testimony, examination and cross-examination of those witnesses, along with evidence brought before the arbitrator.

As the City tries to hire enough Community Service Officers to fill the vacant spots, some of the work is currently being filled by security contractors.

While security contractors cannot hand out fines like a bylaw officer would, they have widened their scope of patrolling streets to even helping the City with a parking study.

As the City conducts a parking study to determine the needs for parking spaces in certain neighbourhoods, security guards are being contracted to drive Community Service Officer vehicles with licence plate cameras attached.

Lapper Security owner Ed Lapierre said it's an added role his company has contracted for the city.

Kamloops RCMP superintendent Syd Lecky welcomes the expanded role of city employees, saying that it has helped officers focus on law enforcement rather than some of the more menial tasks like blocking roads during an investigation, or moving seized belongings that are not essential to an investigation.

READ MORE: Kamloops school district still can't fire teacher, but isn't giving up

"I can't say I was responsible for anything that happened in terms of changes, but since I've been here I've advocated for ways for us to work collectively (with the City)," Lecky said. "I've been asking for something with (Byron) McCorkell and others for quite some time."

McCorkell is the director for community and protective services with the City of Kamloops, the department that oversees bylaw enforcement. He would not comment directly on this story.

The transition into Community Service Officers, and the added hiring restrictions that came with it, were a decision made by City staff and was not brought for a city council decision.

According to councillor Denis Walsh, that's because the change is an "operational decision," meaning that it did not incur costs over the department's pre-approved budget.

Council did, however, approve costs to hire additional Community Service Officers this summer, which would affect their budget.

The union announced in December 2020 that it would fight the transition into the newly branded role. Although Nott indicated they had made attempts to negotiate ahead of the roll out, now the union may be less interested in finding a middle ground.

"The employer needs to reverse this program and go back to the program they had before," Nott said.

The hearing will begin in March, where an arbitrator will determine whether the City violated the collective bargaining agreement and B.C. labour laws.

City communications manager Wendy Heshka did not say whether there is a contingency plan if the union wins in arbitration, but there are avenues for an appeal should the City decide to do so.

"It can go on for a significant amount of time," Nott said.

iNFOnews.ca reached out to Kamloops mayor Ken Christian for comment on this story, but he did not respond in time for publication.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Levi Landry or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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