Montreal

Court sides with borough mayor Sue Montgomery, says Montreal mishandled harassment claims

A Quebec Superior Court judge has sided with the borough mayor, ruling the City of Montreal did not have the power to force Sue Montgomery to fire her chief of staff following a report Annalisa Harris harassed two borough employees.

Dispute dates back more than a year and resulted in borough mayor's ouster from Projet Montréal

Sue Montgomery, mayor of the Côte-Des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-De-Grâce borough (right) and her chief of staff, Annalisa Harris, speak to reporters after a court ruled in their favour. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC )

A Quebec Superior Court judge has sided with Sue Montgomery, mayor of the Côte-Des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-De-Grâce borough, ruling the City of Montreal did not have the power to force her to fire her chief of staff following a report she harassed two borough employees.

In a decision issued Thursday, Justice Bernard Synnott ordered the city to rescind its decision to bar Annalisa Harris from communicating with workers in the CDN–NDG borough, after allegations of harassment emerged more than a year ago in a report by the city's comptroller general.

That report concluded that Harris psychologically harassed two borough staff, including longtime borough director Stéphane Plante.

In January, Projet Montréal booted Montgomery out of the party for refusing to follow the report's recommendation to fire her chief of staff.

Meanwhile, Harris was barred from communicating with staff and attending meetings.

The borough mayor said she wasn't shown the evidence against Harris and would not fire someone without due process. 

In his 38-page ruling, Synott said that any issues of psychological harassment should have been handled by Montgomery, as Harris is her employee.

Synott wrote that it was ''abnormal'' for the city's comptroller general to bar Harris from attending a meeting between Montgomery and borough officials, even if Harris was only present for note-taking purposes. 

Synnot said such directives "stoked the fire," and eventually forced Montgomery to take steps such as sanctioning the borough's director on several occasions.

The borough's elected officials have been butting heads over this issue for more than a year, and the tension between Montgomery and the borough director has been palpable at public meetings. 

Harris says she was harassed

When Montgomery did suspend Plante (the borough director, and no relation to Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante) borough councillors — which at the time included three Projet Montréal councillors — were quick to overrule her decision.

Montgomery's power to manage her own staff was affirmed by the court. She said on Friday that she will not be taking action against Harris.

Montgomery said the comptroller general's report did not show Harris harassed anybody. The borough mayor said Harris did her job properly and politely and had just asked the borough director to do his job.

"I am extremely happy with her work and we will continue to work together for the borough," said Montgomery. 

"It's a great day for democracy. It's a great day for justice."

Sue Montgomery, left, has been vindicated for her decision to reject Projet Montréal's order to fire her chief of staff. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Before the comptroller general's report, Harris had made a complaint of her own on Aug. 29, 2019 — saying she was the victim of harassment by borough director. Quebec's workplace safety board (CNESST) is investigating that complaint.

Harris said the city of Montreal did not take her complaints of psychological harassment seriously, and she was left "feeling humiliated, hurt, denigrated and diminished." She said it has damaged her reputation.

After the court handed down its ruling, Harris said she was grateful for the support she has received from her family, friends and borough residents. She also thanked Montgomery for her unwavering support throughout a "very difficult year."

"It's not easy to be a young woman in politics and I am grateful to have a mayor who supports me," said Harris, 28. 

Harris's age was mentioned in the comptroller general's report. In his ruling, Synnot said the fact that Harris is in her 20s is not relevant and that mentioning that in the report was discriminatory. 

When contacted Friday, borough director Plante declined to comment.

Mayor Plante to blame, opposition says

Official opposition leader and councillor for the district of Darlington Lionel Perez said this saga is far from over, as there are now complaints filed with the CNESST and the Commission municipale du Québec.

"It is clear from the judgment that Mayor Plante's office is largely responsible for the crisis and contributed to dragging out this situation for almost a year," said Perez in a statement. 

"From the beginning of the conflict between Mrs. Montgomery and Plante, I always said that this matter should be settled in court to avoid a hostile work environment in the borough."

Mayor Plante's office released a statement Friday, saying the ruling confirms the existence of an unhealthy work climate and accusing Montgomery of creating that climate. 

The city's priority is to maintain a functional borough that gives citizens the "services they are entitled to expect," the statement says.

"We will analyze the judgment in order to evaluate the options allowing us to improve the situation in a sustainable way," the statement says.

"All employees of the City of Montreal must be treated with respect, civility and dignity." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isaac Olson has been a Montreal-area journalist for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Isaac_J_Olson

With files from Simon Nakonechny and Antoni Nerestant

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