Sexual harassment allegations filed

Firefighters have filed complaints with the District of Fort St. James against Fire Chief Rob Bennett.

Two female volunteer firefighters have filed complaints of sexual harassment with the District of Fort St. James against Fire Chief Rob Bennett.

One of the women, Kirstin Rudolph, said she filed a complaint in relation to an incident which she said took place July 18 after fire practice.

The second woman who filed a complaint is choosing to remain anonymous.

Another female firefighter, Joy Reierson, said she also has had concerns regarding the fire chief’s behaviour, however she did not move forward with a formal complaint at the time because she worried about how it would impact her relationship with her fellow firefighters.

“You’re there for your community,” she said.

She had, however, been involved in a letter to the District of Fort St. James back in April, which a group of firefighters sent in regarding other concerns they had with the chief and his behaviour.

“We were embarrassed, disappointed and asked that something be done about reckless behaviour and leadership,” she said.

The letter also requested the matter be kept confidential at the time in order to minimize damage to the fire department.

However, Reierson said nothing seemed to change between then and now.

While both women were quick to praise their fellow firefighters, they know their complaints will cause some division at the fire hall.

“I just hope the investigation goes quickly so we know what’s what,” said Reierson.

“The dust will eventually settle,” said Rudolph. “We’ll figure it out.”

The District of Fort St. James had called an emergency in-camera meeting which took place on July 24 after the complaints were filed, and while it was indicated it was a labour relations issue, they would not confirm whether the meeting was in relation to the complaints or related to Bennett in any way.

“To protect personal privacy, I have asked all employees, council members and volunteers not to comment on this or any other internal employment matter,” said Kevin Crook, chief administrative officer for the District of Fort St. James.

He did, however, confirm Fire Chief Rob Bennett is not currently attending work for the District and Don Fraser is the acting fire chief.

The District of Fort St. James Anti-harassment Policy states a formal complaint “will be investigated, either by a person from within the District of Fort St. James or an outside consultant … He or she will interview the complainant, the alleged harasser, and any witnesses.”

The policy also states the investigator will report in writing to the council and recommend appropriate remedies or disciplinary action, should the allegations be substantiated.

The policy states this should take place ideally within a week and any complaints filed in bad faith can result in penalties against the complainant.

In addition, the policy states anyone who retaliates against a person involved in a harassment complaint can then be subject to the same penalties as a harasser.

The possible penalties include a written reprimand, a suspension, a demotion and a dismissal.

The RCMP are not involved in relation to the complaints as of press time, and it is not being treated as a criminal matter.

Bennett did not return messages in order to comment prior to press time.

The complaints are still allegations and have not yet been substantiated  through any process as of press time.