Something rotten is going down in the administrative offices of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame de-Grâce – Montreal’s biggest borough – and the conflict, between Mayor Sue Montgomery and a top civil servant, is preventing communication and delaying long-overdue projects.
What began as an attempt by Montgomery, elected borough mayor in 2017, to enlist the office of the Comptroller General to improve the working climate in her office, where she says tension with senior staff was “present from the get-go,” has mushroomed into a full-blown crisis. (The Comptroller General’s mandate covers ethical conduct in the city bureaucracy including the application of employees’ Code of Conduct.)
Following its interviews with Borough staff, and according to the conclusions of the Comptroller’s report, read to Montgomery, it was determined that her chief of staff had psychologically harassed two borough civil servants and she was to no longer communicate with them. It also stated Montgomery was guilty of “willful blindness” with regard to the working climate.
Montgomery has refused Mayor Valérie Plante’s demand in a private conversation that Montgomery fire her chief of staff, saying her aide had been the victim of “a kangaroo court.”
As a result, Plante ejected Montgomery from the Projet Montréal caucus, removed her from two city council commissions and sent the harassment file submitted by the Comptroller General to the Quebec Municipal Commission for adjudication, claiming Montgomery had refused to “fulfill her legal obligations as an employer and her duty as a member of council.”
Editorial: Projet Montréal disappoints in failing to support Sue Montgomery
Former star journalist Sue Montgomery vies for mayoral seat in CDN-NDG
Montreal election: The best women won
In sending the file to the commission, Montgomery’s lawyer says the Comptroller General has overstepped his authority.
Meanwhile, a senior civil servant in the borough has reportedly refused to accept a severance package and leave his job unless Montgomery dismisses her chief of staff, but saying the process was unfair, the mayor and her aide agree she will continue working.
On the advice of Montgomery’s lawyer, her chief of staff has resumed attending meetings with civil servants, but according to Montgomery, the borough’s top bureaucrats are refusing to take part in meetings while she is there, even if she does not address them. As might be expected, all this is having an effect on the functioning at the borough’s Decarie Blvd. offices, but Montgomery says borough work is continuing.
“I meet with the director general every week, I say these are the files, where are we on this? Then there is a follow-up email, which they are not used to. “It’s not running as it should, but it is functioning. The civil servants are working, I am making sure of that, but it’s not rosy. They have a job to do, I have a job to do, and we’re going to do it.”
An announcement is expected later this month on the future of the borough owned Empress Theatre building, latterly known as Cinema V. Since it faces Girouard Park, such a plan would correct a longstanding blight on the urban landscape of Sherbrooke W. and inject new life into the area. In fact, it was during efforts by Montgomery and the aide to get some basic facts on the property that relations deteriorated.
“After touring the building, I realized it could not be saved. I asked for a professional audit of the building and the senior bureaucrat told my chief of staff we should have the result of the audit in August and that there was a contract.
“It turned out there was no contract, and there was no audit. He tried to blame an underling, and I said, ‘No, it’s your responsibility’,” Montgomery recalls.
She says that as a result she lost confidence in him. There finally was an audit done, which was received this fall. Montgomery realized she needed outside advice on how to deal with a member of her senior staff who should be a key player in running the borough – In fact, if it were a city, Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Damede-Grâce, with a population of about 165,000, would be the seventh biggest in Quebec, slightly smaller than Sherbrooke (168,000).
In contrast, she credits her chief of staff with bringing structure to her office, working well with her in daily conversations, providing briefing notes, and defining tasks for the various members of her office. Though only 27, she had amassed valuable experience as a political aide in Ottawa, having served as an intern with then Liberal MP Marleen Jennings, and later in the offices of Liberal cabinet ministers Marc Garneau and Dr. Caroline Bennett.
Montgomery does not accept the findings of the Comptroller General’s office, questions the legitimacy of the process, and has been unable to see the full report, ostensibly because she is named in it. Her copy was severely redacted.
“We need transparency? What if the Comptroller General was wrong? Who were the people doing this investigation? What is their training? Why did they ask questions about our feminism? What does that have to do with anything?” Montgomery says she was sent a confidentiality form to sign after the story about the alleged psychological harassment was leaked. She refused to sign it.
“It had spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, they referred to my chief of staff as the mayor. I am supposed to believe these experts? “All I ask is, ‘Show me the proof that she humiliated people, berated people, or did so repeatedly, in a way that fits the definition of harassment, then yes, I will deal with it. But I am not going to fire someone without a warning, without a chance to change – there is a gradation of sanctions when it comes to psychological harassment, and they have not followed their own policy.”
Strangely, no complaint of harassment was lodged independently by any civil servant until Montgomery asked the Comptroller General and its Respect for the Person division to look into the situation in her office so it can function more effectively. Responding to a subpoena delivered to her NDG home, Montgomery met late last month with Quebec Municipal Commission officials and was scheduled for a second meeting, but is barred from discussing how they proceeded.
Meanwhile, lawyer Éric Oliver, a municipal law specialist, has offered to represent Montgomery and in a letter to the private lawyer engaged by the city has protested the failure of the city to provide the full copy of the report on alleged psychological harassment. It was so extensively redacted that it was rendered “useless and unintelligible,” he wrote.
Oliver alleges the full report is being kept under wraps because it “in no way supports the firing” of Montgomery’s chief of staff or “any supposed conclusion of psychological harassment, when the facts are analyzed objectively.”
While officials outlined its conclusion orally to Montgomery, Oliver asks why they can’t be given to her in writing. Meanwhile, Oliver argues that according to Montreal’s charter and Quebec’s Tribunal administrative du travail, the Comptroller General cannot impose rulings on labour relations matters in a borough, issue directives to a borough mayor, and complain to the Quebec Municipal Commission, without a formal resolution by the city.
The lawyer’s letter refers to the current situation as “this crisis that has negative repercussions on the internal functioning of the borough,” in effect underlining the urgency that the conflict there be resolved.