The recent inquiry into the behaviour of Tu Nedhé-Wıı̀lıı̀deh MLA Stephen Norn has unearthed other questions about the outsized influence of the clerk’s office.
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson was set to attend a Board of Management (BOM) meeting on Oct. 4, dealing with a “personnel matter,” when he was singled out by officials of the clerk’s office and strongly advised to declare a conflict and exit the meeting.
The BOM, chaired by the assembly Speaker Frederick Blake with ordinary MLAs as members, is responsible for all operations and staff of the legislative assembly.
When called into the Oct. 4 meeting and the BOM met quorum, Jacobson was immediately asked to declare a conflict and leave.
“Sheila MacPherson said ‘I think Mr. Jacobson should declare a conflict because of the affidavit he submitted to the Norn inquiry with regards to Mr. (Tim) Mercer,’” Jacobson told NNSL Media. “I asked Mr. Rutland to answer me: ‘do I need to declare a conflict?’ He said, ‘yes, you do because of what you submitted in your affidavit.’ Those were his exact words.”
Tim Mercer is the clerk of the legislative assembly. Glen Rutland, the legislative assembly deputy clerk, House Procedures and Committees, normally reports directly to Mercer but at the time was acting clerk. Sheila MacPherson is Deputy Law Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories and also reports to the clerk of the assembly.
“I was told when I did that affidavit that nobody would see it except for the adjudicator and the two (Norn Inquiry) lawyers involved (Steve Cooper and Maurice Laprairie),” Jacobson said.
Jacobson complied with the advice from MacPherson and Rutland but after was left wondering how they knew about the affidavit he had recently provided to Cooper, the lawyer representing the embattled Tu Nedhé-Wıı̀lıı̀deh MLA in the ongoing inquiry launched by the legislative assembly.
The highly confidential legal document, according to Jacobson, spells out in full detail what he saw and experienced when he was central in what was described by Mercer himself as “a heated discussion” between Mercer and Minister Shane Thompson at the Legislative Assembly on March 13, 2020.
The Legislative Assembly confirmed last week that the Oct. 4 in-camera BOM meeting was held to deal with a personnel matter, but would not disclose the nature of those proceedings.
Three days later on Oct. 7, the speaker’s office sent an email to MLAs stating that Mercer would be returning to his regular duties on Oct. 14, after being away on paid leave since Feb. 16, 2021 during a workplace review of his office.
Nicole Bonnell, manager of public affairs and communications at the legislative assembly, said last week that the assembly will not reveal if the in-camera BOM meeting had anything to do with Mercer’s return or conditions of his employment. Bonnell confirmed the meeting met quorum and acknowledged that Jacobson had declared a conflict of interest.
NNSL Media contacted Cooper whose office had received the Jacobson affidavit: “We certainly heard rumours that information in the possession of the inquiry has made its way out of the strict confines of the process,” Cooper wrote. “If true, we would maintain that the information was improperly distributed although we have no confirmation of what if anything has been distributed.”
Cooper further stated: “If it is determined with a reasonable degree of certainty that information in the possession of the inquiry and subject to the privacy and confidentiality rules has been released, we will certainly bring that to the attention of the sole adjudicator when the inquiry is next convened.”
This is the second time Jacobson said he has been excluded from discussions regarding the conduct of the clerk of the assembly. In March, the BOM hired Ottawa-based Quintet Consulting Corporation to review concerns about the work environment in the clerk’s office, under Mercer.
The workplace review was triggered in February when four individuals came forward charging Mercer with creating a toxic work environment.
Jacobson said he reached out but was never contacted by the consultants hired by the BOM.
“Quintet never did get a hold of me,” Jacobson said. “I left an email with them. They never ever did return my calls.”
The Quintet report concluded that while the workplace is “divided” and has “a lack of unity,” it is not “in an overall sense, a toxic or poisoned one.”
Jacobson, re-elected in 2019, is the most senior MLA. Between 2011 and 2015, he was the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and was Mercer’s direct supervisor.
NNSL Media asked Speaker Blake if the staff of the clerk’s office were not themselves in a conflict regarding the return of their long-time boss.
Blake opted to let his communications officer Bonnell answer: “The Office of the Clerk does not comment on what if any procedural advice is provided to members,” she said. “Members may choose to disclose the advice provided to them. The onus is on a member to declare a conflict of interest, and that question should be directed to Mr. Jacobson who may or may not choose to disclose the nature of the conflict.”