The Glengarry News
‘Justice will be served’: Roxane Villeneuve unfazed by latest sanction
Outspoken North Stormont Councillor Roxane Villeneuve has been sanctioned for the third time in two years for divulging confidential information and publicly criticizing staff.
A 60-day pay suspension has been recommended by the township’s integrity commissioner, Aird & Berlis, a Toronto-based legal firm, after lawyers John Mascarin and John George Pappas investigated a complaint filed in 2021.
In their June 27 decision, they found that Ms. Villeneuve contravened the township’s Code of Conduct at an August 10, 2021 meeting and a social media post made shortly thereafter.
She had earlier been penalized by municipal council following investigations for her conduct in late 2020 and early 2021.
“The Councillor, through legal counsel, takes the position that she did not contravene the Code, as alleged in the Complaint,” the commissioner’s report notes.
Ms. Villeneuve has maintained that the main thrust of the complaint is to “muzzle her,” and impede her ability to exercise “her most fundamental and essential right as an elected member of Council to speak freely and make any statements she sees fit.”
But the commissioner’s report observes: “The content of the Councillor’s statement can only be understood as a continuation of her pattern of Code-offensive comments respecting the performance of Township staff. She has already been the subject of two separate reports of findings from the Appointed Integrity Commissioner. She has twice been sanctioned for same type of conduct, and yet it continues.”
“The Councillor has twice been determined to have contravened the Code for her action respecting Township staff. She has twice been sanctioned, with an escalating response in each instance. In these circumstances, a continuation of the Councillor’s behaviour, engages the principle of progressive discipline. As such, we recommend that a penalty of a suspension of remuneration for a period of 60 days is appropriate for purposes of specific deterrence and to maintain public confidence in the Township’s accountability and ethical framework.”
“Based on our investigation, it is also clear that the Councillor fundamentally misunderstands how the Code is administered and enforced. It is our view that the Councillor miscomprehends the role of Council in considering a report from the integrity commissioner, including the permitted scope of submissions that may be made. Whether based on a misunderstanding or a deliberate alternative interpretation, the Councillor has also challenged the legality of Council’s ability to impose “remedial measures”, (i.e., measures taken in addition to the statutory penalties of the Municipal Act, 2001), despite such measures being acceptable and entirely within Council’s broad statutory authority to deal with accountability and transparency.”
Ms. Villeneuve “is strongly urged to self-educate herself on these matters in order that she may better understand the relationship between Council and the Appointed Integrity Commissioner, and to foster a more cooperative and effective relationship among members of Council and with the Appointed Integrity Commissioner.”
She is entitled to make submissions on the recommendations in the report to Council and she can participate in any discussion pertaining to the recommendations but she is not entitled to vote on any questions in respect of the matter, the lawyers said.
The investigators dismissed one allegation, that she broke a section of the code of conduct when she posted comments on social media. “The content of her message is largely characterized as disagreement with the Appointed Integrity Commissioner and his findings in the July Report,” the commissioner said.
“Considering my recourse”
When contacted by The News, Ms. Villeneuve replied: “I am aware of the decision, confirming one of the complaints was dismissed. As for the anonymous complaint, I will consider my recourse in respect of the decision.”
She continued, “I am pursing a judicial review before the divisional court in respect of previous decisions. I am confident justice will be served and the court decision will provide the much needed guidance and fairness in the complaint process.”
Elected in 2018, Ms. Villeneuve has questioned the authority of the integrity commissioner.
A 2020 complaint led to a conclusion that the councillor had publicly berated the chief administrative officer and used “language and a tone that were abusive and harassing.” Council imposed a penalty of a suspension of the councillor’s remuneration for a period of 30 days, in addition to other remedial measures, including a six-month communication “blackout” with members of township staff.
“The Appointed Integrity Commissioner commented that the previous penalty and remedial measures failed to remedy the serious concern with the manner in which the Councillor communicated with the CAO.”
The Commissioner recommended that Council impose an increased penalty of a suspension of the councillor’s remuneration for a period of 45 days, and prevent him from sending email correspondence directly to the CAO for a period of nine months.
In the last report, the investigators found that in public statements, Ms. Villeneuve continued to insist that she was entitled to her positions and opinions, notwithstanding that the Appointed Integrity Commissioner had previously found those to be transgressive of the Code.
The report refers to “a comment that the CAO was required to accept negative feedback on his performance directly from the Councillor in a manner that was abusive, disrespectful and harassing; a comment that the CAO had failed to present quarterly financial statements, which somehow impeded the Councillor’s ability to “do her job”; a statement that, in the Councillor’s view, a cost overrun had been incurred contrary to Township practices; comments which would tend to give the impression that the CAO had not performed financial management responsibilities in accordance with the accepted standard of practice.
“Furthermore, in spite of an email from the Director of Finance pointing out that the Councillor’s statements were plainly false and baseless, the Councillor did nothing to correct or revise such statements,” the report reads.
She is “strongly urged to re-educate herself”
Councillor insists complaint aims to “muzzle” her
“The crux of the Councillor’s comments was an attempt to publicly criticize the CAO for what the Councillor viewed as perceived performance issues. Whether a bona fide performance issue or not, the Code makes clear that members of Council are not to engage in any action which would injure the professional reputation of Township staff, or engage in action of falsehood or defamation of character of Township staff, in recognition of the power imbalance between the executive and administrative arms,” says the report.
“It is not the role of a member of Council to publicly “name and shame” municipal staff for perceived performance issues in order to act in the best interests of constituents and pursue accountability. In fact, the opposite is true. By publicly airing grievances in a disrespectful and unprofessional manner, the public loses trust in the institution of municipal government, which is hard-earned. If the Councillor had genuine concerns with the performance of the CAO, there would be several alternative options at the Township’s avail which would have enabled the Councillor to raise these issues in a non-transgressive manner. Council could convene a closed meeting to discuss the matter, or could engage in a confidential performance review process. In this way, the application of the Code in this instance does not unduly restrict or impede the Councillor’s ability to express her concerns; it only requires that she do so in a professional, non-public and non-derogatory manner,” the report says.