Montreal city workers write public letter amid corruption claims

City employees have a message for Montrealers feeling bitter amid reports of widespread corruption: We share your pain.
Citizens of Montreal are angered over allegations of corruption surfacing at the Charbonneau commission. Employees for the city say they feel the same. (CP)

City employees have a message for Montrealers feeling bitter amid reports of widespread corruption: We share your pain.

Montreal municipal employees issued a public letter Thursday, saying they also feel betrayed by corruption.

The letter comes as municipal employees are said to be harassed and insulted with increasing frequency in recent weeks, with residents fuming over a corruption scandal playing out at city hall.

The controversy has forced the mayor to resign and it is widely expected that his next-door neighbour, Gilles Vaillancourt, will follow suit.

But the brunt of the public anger is apparently being weathered by the lower-level city employees people see on the street or in civic offices. That has prompted a written response on behalf of the city's 28,000 employees.

"We are all affected by the reprehensible acts committed by some individuals," said the letter, signed by the heads of various unions and the city manager.

"We understand the population's concern over a few employees who have betrayed the relationship of trust that must exist between municipal employees and the community.

"(The city) employs dedicated, honest and competent individuals. We are those blue- and white-collar workers, professionals, information agents, librarians, technicians, secretaries, department managers, firefighters and managers that you probably see every day."

An ongoing corruption inquiry has heard that some municipal employees, particularly city engineers, helped construction companies operate as a cartel where they fixed bids and inflated the cost of projects.

Some of that illicit profit would be shared with corrupt municipal officials, the Montreal mayor's political party, and the Italian Mafia, according to testimony.

Bruce Hicks, a political science professor at Concordia and Carleton universities, says that in the current climate people are right to be outraged.

That kind of public disgruntlement can paralyze governments.

The City of Montreal was forced to quickly backtrack last week on a budget that introduced a 3.3 per cent property tax increase.

Hicks points out that, just days earlier, the City of Ottawa introduced a two per cent increase with nary a peep. But in Montreal, with reports that the Mafia, crooked functionaries, construction companies and political parties were illegally feasting on their dime, the locals weren't inclined to take it.

"It's their money and they're hearing stories everyday about how their money was mismanaged — so you ask them to pay a bill and they resent it," Hicks said.

Civic employees are also said to be getting an earful, and the occasionally snarky comment, when people have to show up at city hall to pay a fine.

But the workers want people to make the distinction between rank-and-file employees and those responsible for wrongdoing.

A spokesman for the union representing the city's blue-collar workers says some of his members have been approached by residents.

Marc Ranger said those 6,000 workers are among the city's most visible employees and they have been forced to absorb the public's anger.

"We are also disgusted by what's going on," Ranger said in an interview.

"We are asking our members to be very polite, to explain that we, as workers, are on the streets of Montreal so they're able to see the kind of work they can do."

The corruption scandal has also had an impact higher up the pay scale.

In Laval, Vaillancourt appears set to resign as mayor after being accused of pocketing kickbacks in exchange for public-works contracts. He has denied the allegation but has gone on leave for an unspecified medical reason and it's doubtful he will return to office.

His office has done little to dispel reports he will quit Friday.

In Montreal, Mayor Gérald Tremblay has stepped down after the inquiry heard he was aware of illegal campaign spending by his party — an allegation he also denies.

Tremblay said he was quitting for the good of the city.

His departure came after municipal operations have been partly frozen — with some projects delayed, employees fired, and a backlash against the municipal budget.

The city administration tried to increase property taxes last week to pay for better infrastructure, and it was forced to quickly backtrack.

The budget is being rewritten.

An interim Montreal mayor will be selected next Friday, in just over a week.

Hicks says the corruption inquiry has damaged citizens' trust of politicians and whittled down their political capital.

But he said it remains a fixable problem.

"One of the things Charbonneau is supposed to do is not just expose what's going on, but recommend some solutions," Hicks said.

The Parti Quebecois government has already announced anti-corruption measures and proposed lower limits on political donations.

The inquiry is expected to submit a report next fall.

"If you're seen as proactive on that file," Hicks said, "I think you can restore trust."