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Rural Secretariat wants Ghent reinstated

As you may have heard over the weekend on CBC Radio, the volunteer board from which Pam Pardy Ghent was fired has written a letter of complaint to the Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development.

Ghent’s firing from the Rural Secretariat, for those who have recently emerged from hibernation, was prompted by a status update on her Facebook account, the morning of October 31. She made a tongue in cheek reference to the infamous Craig Westcott email, and said, in effect, that if we are going to ask about the premier’s mental health, why not go all out, and ask about his penis dimensions as well.

By 6:00 pm that evening, about nine hours later, Ghent received a call from Bruce Gilbert, a deputy minister in the department, advising she had been let go from her volunteer role on the secretariat. The story, which was broken by this blog, caused a great deal of controversy, resulting in a national conversation about the premier’s dangly bits.

And the premier himself was still talking about it five days later, at a speech where he attacked Ghent, Westcott, the CBC, other media, and the Opposition, for being “too negative.”

However, the board on which Ghent volunteered was not happy. Michael Graham, Chair of the Burin Peninsula Regional Council of the Rural Secretariat, fired off a letter of complaint to the department, expressing their concerns about Ghent’s firing and requesting she be reinstated.

I will offer some excerpts from the letter, the full text of which is included at the conclusion of this blog.

The Council did concede that Ghent’s comments were “not appropriate and deserving of some level of censure,” Graham wrote. But he added that Ghent meant no harm with the comment; that she is, in fact, typical of the type of person the secretariat tries to recruit.

“We do not come from academic ivory towers, we do not come from the ‘big city,’ and we are volunteers, neither politicians nor bureaucrats,” Graham wrote. “Our advantage lies in being truly ‘of the people.’ Any truly representative group of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will contain some ‘characters’ with less than politically correct senses of humour and a penchant for speaking their mind, even to their own detriment. Our province is known for this characteristic, and many of our own politicians have been known, and indeed loved, across the country for their irreverent and sometimes challenging personalities.”

In doing its work, the secretariat relies on input from the local community, Graham wrote, and its ability to gather frank input from citizens has been compromised by Ghent’s firing.

“During our work…we have had many occasions to meet citizens of our region to discuss its future,” Graham writes. “In every instance we have been asked who we were, who we represented, and what we hoped to do with the information we obtained. These questions were not always asked with the greatest diplomacy; we have had to convince our citizens that we are an independent group of people like them, unaffiliated with any political party that collects information and gives unbiased policy advice to government... The perception, as well as the reality, of our independence is one of the most valuable characteristics of our council… We feel we must be, and must be seen to be, able to express our opinions and give advice without fear of prejudice or punitive action… We fear that we will now be perceived by the public we serve as being under threat of censure if we give uncomfortable or unpleasant advice. Our credibility as a Council has been damaged, and we respectfully request your help in reassuring us and the public of our independence and request your help in finding a way to regain that credibility.”

Members of the council are private citizens, Graham said, and unlike people who run for public office, none expect to be held to any standard other than criminal and civil law.

“We now feel like we will be watched and examined to ensure we are ‘the right kind’ of people to serve on the Rural Secretariat as has been indicated in some news reports. We would like to know what kind of personal information is being collected and why, and we would like to be able to view it to ensure its veracity.”

Once more, Graham conceded that Ghent showed poor judgment in posting the comment, adding that she has apologized to her colleagues and is willing to do the same publicly.

“Our council has not been at full strength in any of the six years since its inception. The nomination process has been much slower than the attrition rate of our members due to personal and work commitments. Irrespective of this, we have been steadily gaining momentum and will soon, we believe, see results in the form of unprecedented regional cooperation. We view the loss of a valuable member as a crisis which we can ill afford at this time.

“We respectfully request, therefore, that you reconsider the removal of Ms. Pardy Ghent from all participation in the Rural Secretariat. We do agree that it would be inappropriate for her to sit on the Provincial Council as she recently did (where she would be most likely to encounter those most offended by her comments), but we do request that she be allowed to remain as a member of our regional council, at least until it can be brought to full strength and the new members are oriented to their roles.”

To date, there has been no response from Minister Shawn Skinner, who claims he made the decision to fire Ghent.

In my next post, I will offer some comments from Ghent on this controversy, along with a few opinions of my own. In the meantime, here is the full text of the letter from Michael Graham:

 

 

The members of the Burin Peninsula Council of the Rural Secretariat met Wednesday November 3 2010 to discuss the dismissal of Ms. Pam Pardy Ghent from the Rural Secretariat. We recognize that the Minister has the sole right to appoint or remove members from the council, and we also recognize that the Minister is responsible to ensure the integrity and credibility of the advisory function that the Rural Secretariat provides. We also agree that the comments made by Ms. Pardy Ghent were not appropriate and deserving of some level of censure.

We have, however, some concerns that we feel ought to be brought to your attention, and some suggestions for further action.

During our work on the regional council we have had many occasions to meet citizens of our region to discuss its future. In every instance we have been asked who we were, who we represented, and what we hoped to do with the information we obtained. These questions were not always asked with the greatest diplomacy; we have had to convince our citizens that we are an independent group of people like them, unaffiliated with any political party that collects information and gives unbiased policy advice to government on matters that affect our region and province. It is only after we have convinced them of the unbiased and unaffiliated nature of our group that we are able to have meaningful dialog with the participants. The perception, as well as the reality, of our independence is one of the most valuable characteristics of our council that allows us to effectively complete the work we have been asked to do. We feel we must be, and must be seen to be, able to express our opinions and give advice without fear of prejudice or punitive action. While we agree that the comments posted on Facebook were inappropriate, we do not now feel as free to express our opinions as we once did, and, more importantly, we fear that we will now be perceived by the public we serve as being under threat of censure if we give uncomfortable or unpleasant advice. Our credibility as a Council has been damaged, and we respectfully request your help in reassuring us and the public of our independence and request your help in finding a way to regain that credibility.

Our work has also benefited from the perception that the members of the regional council are seen as people just like anyone else in the community. We do not come from academic ivory towers, we do not come from the “big city,” and we are volunteers, neither politicians nor bureaucrats. Our advantage lies in being truly “of the people.” Any truly representative group of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will contain some “characters” with less than politically correct senses of humour and a penchant for speaking their mind, even to their own detriment. Our province is known for this characteristic, and many of our own politicians have been known, and indeed loved, across the country for their irreverent and sometimes challenging personalities. This does not excuse the comments made by Ms. Pardy Ghent, but we would like to put them into perspective. Given our culture, someone in any group as large as the Rural Secretariat is bound to say something offensive to someone eventually. This is, we submit, who we are. Yes, better judgment could be used, but none of us exercise it all the time. All of us on the council are private citizens, and, unlike people who run for public office, none of us expected when we volunteered to be held to any standard other than criminal and civil law. We now feel like we will be watched and examined to ensure we are “the right kind” of people to serve on the Rural Secretariat as has been indicated in some news reports. We would like to know what kind of personal information is being collected and why, and we would like to be able to view it to ensure its veracity.

Periodic lack of judgment, we believe, does not negate the good work that “characters” do. Ms. Pardy Ghent has been an enthusiastic member of our council, and we have come to value her intelligent input and cogent analyses of the issues we have been asked to discuss. We have been in contact with her and she recognizes that her Facebook postings were in poor taste, and offensive to many. She has apologized to us and has indicated that she is willing to do so publicly. We are confident that she, like us, truly believes in the value of what the Rural Secretariat is trying to accomplish.

Our council has not been at full strength in any of the six years since its inception. The nomination process has been much slower than the attrition rate of our members due to personal and work commitments. Irrespective of this, we have been steadily gaining momentum and will soon, we believe, see results in the form of unprecedented regional cooperation. We view the loss of a valuable member as a crisis which we can ill afford at this time.

We respectfully request, therefore, that you reconsider the removal of Ms. Pardy Ghent from all participation in the Rural Secretariat. We do agree that it would be inappropriate for her to sit on the Provincial Council as she recently did (where she would be most likely to encounter those most offended by her comments), but we do request that she be allowed to remain as a member of our regional council, at least until it can be brought to full strength and the new members are oriented to their roles.

We look forward to working with you to resolve this issue.

Respectfully submitted

Michael Graham

Chair, Burin Peninsula Regional Council

 

 

 

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