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Vancouver city worker quit, wasn’t fired, court told in dismissal case

Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A former city of Vancouver employee could have used a meeting with her boss to air her grievances but instead showed up with a letter that said she'd been unfairly dismissed, a lawyer for the city told B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday.

Carlene Robbins, Vancouver's former manager of property inspection and a 37-year city employee, went on to file a lawsuit last year. The hearing began Monday and Ms. Robbins continued her testimony a day later.

The case stems from a fire at a rooming house on Pandora Street in which three men died in December, 2010. The city had known it was a problem property for years.

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Ms. Robbins earlier testified that each time she issued an order to fix it up, the owner would do the bare minimum. The city was arranging a licence review when the fire broke out.

Ms. Robbins said Monday she was berated by "furious" city manager Penny Ballem at a Jan. 9, 2011, meeting because an unrelated health inspection at another property was was not carried out. She said "80 per cent" of her duties were taken away on Jan. 14, constituting constructive dismissal.

Peter Csiszar, the lawyer representing the city, has insisted Ms. Robbins was not dismissed but instead resigned. He continued along that vein Tuesday and focused much of his attention on a meeting Ms. Robbins was expected to have with her supervisor, Will Johnson, on Jan. 26, 2011.

Ms. Robbins told the court that she and Mr. Johnson had agreed to talk about what Mr. Johnson felt was a misunderstanding over the nature of any changes to her job. But Ms. Robbins testified that she consulted a lawyer before that meeting and showed up with the sole intention of presenting the letter. She said she then left her parking pass and cellphone on her desk and left.

Mr. Csiszar asked Ms. Robbins if she felt Mr. Johnson was being empathetic when he arranged the Jan. 26 meeting. She reluctantly agreed.

When asked why she didn't use the meeting to work through any concerns she had about the change in her duties, Ms. Robbins said she had already tried to speak with Mr. Johnson and didn't want to sit through "another vague meeting."

Ms. Robbins acknowledged that she had showed up at her office more than an hour before the Jan. 26 meeting to go through her e-mails and forwarded some she felt she would need for the lawsuit to her husband's e-mail address.

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Mr. Csiszar said the information she took was city property and contained information about some of its residents. Ms. Robbins said she did not believe the information about property violations was private and that she had done nothing wrong.

She is expected to continue her testimony on Wednesday.

The Pandora Street fire killed Garland McKay, Dwayne Rasmussen and Stephen Yellowquill. Fire investigators said the house went up in flames either due to a string of Christmas lights or a short-circuiting extension cord.

Extension cords ran throughout the home because it had improper wiring. The house had two smoke detectors, but one of its residents told a coroner's inquest last year that they didn't work.

Choi Hong Leong, the property's owner, denied at the inquest the city's claim that she was running a rooming house. She said the men were more a family than a group of individuals.

Nonetheless, she said they had promised to move out at the end of December so she could make repairs.

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