Clerk walks out of council meeting
The Oct. 30 regular meeting of Espanola council came to an abrupt end when clerk Paula Roque walked out of council chambers.
The clerk’s exit was the culmination of a meeting that was fraught with tension from the very start as the agenda included a recommendation regarding the Integrity Commissioner report.
The Integrity Commissioner Report, which was presented to council in August, was prepared by Shearer Parnega LLP and found the mayor and four members of council in violation of the code of conduct in their role as elected officials.
The report cited several allegations by staff against Mayor Ron Piche and councillors Ron Duplessis, Ken Duplessis, Ray Dufour and Heather Malott.
It found the councillors engaged in behaviours contrary to the code of conduct and recommended various penalties including suspension of remuneration, workplace harassment training, and training in the proper role of council in relation to staff and the decision making process.
The report said the mayor failed to effectively direct and control members of council during meetings and engaged in unprofessional and antagonistic exchanges with councillors which contributed to a work environment that undermined staff. It was recommended that Piche complete training on effective leadership.
Item G1 on the regular meeting’s agenda was a recommendation to not impose suspensions of councillors’ remuneration, but that council support and implement a comprehensive plan entitled ‘Council’s New Vision,’ which is designed to implement real change in Espanola.
The regular meeting began with question period where CAO Cynthia Townsend introduced herself as a resident of Espanola and posed a question to council.
“With regards to Item G1, I am aware that we currently have a strategic plan, a procedural bylaw as well as a code of conduct for council, a code of conduct for staff, a workplace violence and harassment policy, which were adopted by this council and a communication policy. So my question is will the new vision be to constantly change the rules by which we are governed by as opposed to accept responsibility for one’s actions; and my follow up question is what kind of a message does this send to residents, staff and the youth of our community?”
Councillor Bill Foster said the new vision will change some of what council is doing.
“We want to make sure we provide opportunity for council to give direction to staff particularly when it comes to direction and information we would like to have to make decisions.”
He explained that council members get their agenda on a Friday and a staff report with some information.
“Often we’re faced with having to make decision with not enough time to think about it and not enough time to go back to staff to ask for additional information.”
Townsend stopped Foster and asked the mayor if she could repeat the question, which she did.
Coun. Ken Duplessis said he didn’t think council would be constantly changing the rules.
“Some changes that will come into effect will be improvements, to have a better working relationship, better understanding, better respect for each other.”
He added that there will be nothing but improvement.
“I believe council is serious about this. There has been lots of debate, argument, animosity and ill refute over the last term. I believe it can significantly improve.”
Piche said that healing is needed and staff needs to be included in the conversation.
“Council hasn’t communicated well with staff and has actually communicated badly and that’s what has been going on.”
He continued, “We talk about change. We need to be people of change and it has to happen immediately. I apologized publicly when the Parnega report came out because I knew that I was wrong. Anyone else that wants to apologize can apologize right now.”
Piche praised staff for their intelligence and hard work and said he was not happy with how all this happened at the end of council’s term.
Coun. Ray Dufour directed a comment to Townsend regarding the last part of her question.
“Everyone will be accountable for their actions, that’s for sure.”
When the recommendation regarding the integrity report came up on the agenda, Ken Duplessis declared a conflict of interest. Councillors Dufour, Heather Malott and Ron Duplessis did the same and they all exited the gallery.
When the recommendation was read, all three remaining members of council raised their hands in support of the motion including the mayor, Foster and Coun. Bob Yocom.
As soon as the vote was complete, Roque stood up and walked out of council chambers.
Several staff were in the gallery and followed the clerk out including CAO Cynthia Townsend, Fire Chief Mike Pichor, manager of financial services Cathy Tessier, chief building official Dan Rivet, program manager Cheryl Kennelly, manager of public works Joel Yusko, assistant manager public works Dave Parker and manager of town’s office for provincial offenses Christine Desjardins.
The four members of council that had declared a conflict of interest returned to the table and the municipality’s lawyer Paul Cassan informed them that the meeting could not proceed without a clerk.
After a 20 minute recess, the lawyer addressed Piche: “Your worship, without a clerk the meeting is over. We can’t continue.”
Cassan explained that a special meeting would have to be called to address the rest of the agenda items.
The meeting was adjourned. The Mid-North Monitor reached out to the CAO the following day for a comment.
“I think it is pretty self explanatory why staff chose to leave,” said Townsend.
A special closed meeting has since been scheduled for Nov. 6, but the outcome was not known prior to deadline.
The agenda included a matter regarding solicitor-client privilege, the recommendation regarding the Integrity Commissioner Report and a bylaw to adopt “Council’s New Vision.”
Council’s new vision is a 13-page document outlining an approach to build a culture of trust by establishing and following the rules, improve decision-making processes, strengthen leadership and develop the ‘team.’
YOUTUBE PHOTO Clerk Paula Roque walks out of the Oct. 30 meeting followed by other town staff members.
Paul Cassan, lawyer for the Town of Espanola, tells council that a clerk needs to be present for the meeting to continue.