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Town council has “toxic” screaming match behind closed doors; conflicts persist

by Isabel Mosseler

After invoking the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA), the Tribune has gained access to the minutes of a highly contentious closed meeting of WN municipal council held on March 19, 2019, which led to three separate complaints to the Ombudsman of Ontario that the meeting was held inappropriately. Those minutes reveal a meeting in which tempers flared and discussion devolved into a shouting match, and obvious divisions at the council table were further inflamed. After a lengthy investigation, Paul Dubé, Ombudsman of Ontario, delivered a ruling against the municipality on October 3, resulting in four recommendations that were adopted by council on October 10.

Provincial legislation requires that all closed sessions of council be held under the correct exceptions of the Municipal Act. The meeting in question was called under the topic “Municipal Act/ Roles & Responsibilities”, but once in closed session, Mayor Joanne Savage indicated that she had received legal advice from an unnamed source suggesting the session should fall under “Training”, and proceeded despite objections from some other council members that it would not qualify for in-camera deliberation. The closed meeting then devolved into a verbal battle until the mayor shut it down, with no resolutions made.

At subsequent meetings of council, the mayor and some councillors objected to the way the minutes were recorded as a “narrative”, and the minutes were thus never adopted. At that time, Coun. Chris Fisher recommended digitally recording closed sessions so there would be no question of accuracy, omissions or style of minutes. His recommendation was adopted; all closed sessions are now recorded for referral by members. Following the ruling of the Ombudsman stating the meeting should not have been held in-camera, the minutes of the March 19 closed session were made public under MFIPPA.

Those written minutes state “The mayor elaborated on her authorities for proceeding with this item in closed session and indicated that she sought advice from two individuals whom she did not name but alluded to them as being affiliated with or employed by AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) and MMAH (Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing)”.

The minutes reveal that Councillor Léo Malette found comments on social media regarding councillors “cutting each other off”; that Counc. Chris Fisher was not comfortable with the subject matter being held in closed session; that Coun. Lise Sénécal was frustrated in her efforts to obtain information from staff; that Coun. Dan Roveda also “did not feel comfortable in closed session and further that he did not like being lectured to”; that there was a heated exchange between councillors Lise Sénécal and Roveda “resulting in Councillor Duhaime banging on his desk and shouting at Councillors Larabie and Roveda.”

Minutes further stated, “Throughout the ensuing commotion Councillors Larabie, Roveda, Fisher, Malette and Seguin all stated they were not comfortable with the discussion in closed session” and that they were standing at their desks attempting to close the meeting. “The Mayor indicated she had one more thing to say which incited further exchanges,” at which point the Mayor directed the Clerk to end the meeting.

Ombudsman Dubé, in his report, indicates that his office interviewed members of council and staff and reviewed notes taken by individuals at the meeting. His report says Mayor Savage desired to have an in-camera session to discuss council divisions and personal conflicts, and was advised by an unnamed advisor that “council issues” would not qualify for closed session, but that the matter could be brought in under “Municipal Act/Roles & Responsibilities”, and so instructed staff to prepare the agenda as such.

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