West Nipissing’s municipal council has collapsed. Four councillors have refused to attend future meetings, which means there will be no quorum to carry on with proceedings. Councillors Chris Fisher, Roland Larabie, Leo Malette and Dan Roveda want the municipality to provide them with legal counsel before they return.
In a recent release, councillor Roveda explained that on February 25, 2022, the municipality received a letter “from a lawyer representing the mayor, councillors Yvon Duhaime, Denise Senecal, and Lise Senecal.” The letter “although addressed to the municipality” was also sent to councillors via email.
“This is not a lawyer that has anything to do with the municipality,” Roveda clarified, and “the people named in it were wide-ranging and not well-defined.”
However, the letter mentions “senior members of staff, Chris Fisher, Roland Larabie, Leo Malette, and Dan Roveda, at the least,” Roveda explained, and “one could also infer that there were accusations made against legal council for the municipality.”
The letter contains “accusation and threats,” which Roveda found “bizarre and unfounded.” It “concerns an ongoing file (one that is also being blocked) that we have nothing to do with,” Roveda added, and “concerns the potential sharing of information from that file.”
“To be honest, as councillors, we don’t know what to make of it,” Roveda admitted.
Roveda explained that usually, “when there is an outside threat made against the municipality,” the municipality’s legal counsel would provide advice “on what it means and what to do about it to protect the organization.”
However, no such offer was given. “Due to the fact that our council is a member short, the mayor and complainants have blocked us from obtaining advice from the municipal lawyer by normal procedures.”
The issue was raised at council’s last meeting on April 5. A request to enter closed session to discuss the matter was on the agenda, but council voted against the motion. Mayor Savage explained that the matter was brought up during council’s March 22 meeting and was defeated.
“This matter is not being reconsidered,” she said, and for it to be reconsidered, two thirds of council would have to agree.
Councillor Malette said, “we need to have the information in a closed session,” as there would be discussion about identifiable individuals, and without entering closed session, he did not feel comfortable carrying on with the meeting.
“We need that information,” he reiterated. “I know,” mayor Savage reassured, “but I’m just following procedures and since there was a resolution that was voted on for the same subject matter on March 22,” and those who voted for it then had not reconsidered, there was no need to reconsider the motion.
Savage thanked Leo “for informing us that if you don’t get your way, you’re going to leave the meeting or you’re not going to continue, and that would not be fair to the taxpayers. That would be so unfortunate.”
For Roveda, “they are clearly in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act,” and noted “a couple of them have publicly stated that we need to get our own lawyers” at personal expense.
“To anyone with a shred of common sense, this is not normal business,” Roveda said. “We have done absolutely nothing wrong” and obtaining legal advice would allow them to “err on the side of caution.”
“We find ourselves continually on the back foot,” Roveda said, “constantly having to defend ourselves and being painted as villains.”
Roveda, Fisher, Malette and Larabie “understand these delays are not productive” but “our rights to legal counsel have been taken away,” and “until our legal position is clear,” will not be attending regular council meetings. However, the four will return to the table to “continue with the budget process until it is finalized.”
“We have a right to get that legal counsel,” Roveda said, “and we want to move forward for the taxpayers of this municipality.”
Councillor Denis Senecal explained that “this letter is a legal letter, sought by certain councillors for an opinion. There’s nothing preventing other councillors to seek the same legal opinion without the taxpayers paying for it.”
“If you object, get yourself a lawyer and we’ll go from there,” he said. “But to try to get the taxpayers to pay for your legal issues, I don’t think that’s right.”
He also expressed concerns about trust around the table, noting the copy of the letter “was leaked,” and “there’s no more trust here.”
“When you send a letter to council and senior staff,” Larabie said, “they are protected by the municipality,” which is why “we’re trying to get access” to the municipality’s legal counsel.
“And you are preventing us.”
David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.