Hawkesbury mayor, council didn't break the law, says ombudsman

Ontario's ombudsman says the mayor of Hawkesbury, Ont., and town councillors didn't break the law when they pre-emptively discussed dismissing three senior town employees last year.

Complaint lodged about closed-door meeting

Hawkesbury, Ont., Mayor Paula Assaly on March 26, 2021. Ontario's ombudsman says Assaly and a few councillors did not breach the Municipal Act by pre-emptively discussing the termination of three senior employees last year. (Joe Tunney/CBC)

Ontario's ombudsman says the mayor of Hawkesbury, Ont., and town councillors didn't break the law when they pre-emptively discussed dismissing three senior town employees last year.

That move led to sanctions stemming from an integrity commissioner's report, which said it started a string of events that's thrown the town's government into chaos.

The integrity commissioner's investigation was sparked by a closed-door meeting of the committee of the whole on June 16, 2020, when Mayor Paula Assaly proposed to dismiss three of the recreation department's four senior employees "without claiming any pertinent cause, and without any warning to the administration," then-commissioner John Saywell wrote in his report.

The city clerk resigned the next day, followed by several longtime employees, according to the report, starting a series of events that "place the town of Hawkesbury in almost complete chaos," Saywell wrote.

In addition to interfering with their work, employees were also made to "feel diminished, humiliated, intimidated and sometimes threatened," Saywell's report noted.

Last month, Assaly's colleagues voted four to one that she must apologize, get at least 24 hours of professional coaching to develop her leadership skills, and be temporarily removed from meetings of the committee of the whole. 

Assaly told council she was disappointed and that the integrity commissioner had violated procedure, and made a motion for a judicial review.

Municipal Act not breached: ombudsman

A complaint was filed last September to Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé, alleging that on June 15, 2020, "a quorum of councillors ... discussed council business that they intended to introduce and vote on at a council meeting scheduled for the next day." 

The report says Assaly told Dubé's office that on June 15, she had one-on-one meetings with three councillors at various locations to see if they were in favour of terminating the three employees.

The complaint alleged those discussions led to a meeting the next day which was improperly closed to the public, against the Municipal Act.

Dubé said in a seven-page report released this week that "the discussions in this case went beyond members sharing information informally."

"The mayor could have acted in a more transparent and accountable fashion by introducing this matter at a formal council meeting," he said.

However, Dubé concluded that "this conduct is not technically prohibited" by the act's closed meeting clauses, and that the act doesn't directly address it.

"Given the importance of accountability, transparency, and ensuring that openness requirements are not subverted, the government may wish to clarify whether pre-agreements by a majority of council are contrary to the Municipal Act's open meeting provisions," he said.

He concluded that the councillors and mayor didn't contravene the act by pre-emptively discussing the terminations on June 15. 

On Monday during a regular meeting, councillors received the ombudsman's report without commenting on it. Mayor Assaly did not respond to Radio-Canada's interview request.

With files from Radio-Canada's Denis Babin

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