Editorial: Montreal voters will have their say on integrity

The electorate will have ample opportunity to consider whether it is time for the municipal government to change.

Integrity must replace corruption at city hall.

Nothing anyone says or does now can change the fact that Montreal taxpayers have been ripped off royally by a system of corruption and collusion, payoffs and kickbacks, threats and greed.

The code of honour expected of the civil service has been replaced by a code of silence. Testimony at the Charbonneau Commission and the arrests and charges against so many highly placed civic officials—innocent until proven guilty—indicate that the rot is deep and broad. The profit motive has snuffed out any semblance of morality or serving the public good.

It did not start under Mayor Gérald Tremblay. As retired city engineer Luc Leclerc told the inquiry, he got to know the “culture of proximity” to contractors shortly after starting to work in 1990 under then-mayor Jean Doré. He pocketed half a million dollars in illicit payments, but claimed that was how the system worked, and he believed it was not a secret to his superiors.

“It was out in the open. I went to dinner, played golf, went on trips with contractors, and it was clear for all to see and know.”

It was the prevailing “business culture” in his department, and he believed it had been going on for generations. How depressing.

Where do we go from here?

The Quebec government has introduced its Bill 1, hoping it will lead to “zero tolerance“ when it comes to corruption. All companies and sub-contractors would have to pass an integrity test before being allowed to bid on public contracts worth at least $25,000. It would apply to Quebec government and municipal contracts and those with major state agencies, such as Hydro-Québec and Loto-Québec.

This is a good beginning. But is it enough? The buck has to stop somewhere, and in our hierarchical system of government, the ultimate responsibility for what happens is borne by the chief magistrate.

Mayor Gérald Tremblay has built a reputation as an administrator and caretaker. Nobody has suggested he was personally on the take. His standing is in marked contrast to that of Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt.

Vaillancourt went on sick leave after provincial anti-corruption squads raided his homes and safety deposit boxes in search of incriminating evidence. Tremblay took a few days off to ponder his future.

It is the municipal regimes, here and elsewhere in Quebec, that have been tarnished. Tremblay never promised grandiose schemes like those Jean Drapeau piloted to put Montreal on the world map. Tremblay did enable the city to make progress in such areas as functioning with a borough system, extending cycling paths and maintaining the accessibility and affordability of mass transit, compared with other major cities.

With an election planned for November, the electorate will have ample opportunity to consider whether it is time for the reins of government to be turned over to a reform-oriented Projet Montréal under Richard Bergeron.

As councilor Alex Norris has noted, his party has always limited contributions to avoid possible conflicts of interest and it is not the only one not cited for corrupt practices at the inquiry.

The culture of corruption among some civil servants, and what Norris calls the mayor’s “willful blindness” would apply to more than the Tremblay administration, according to testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry. It goes back decades.

Someone has to guide the city over the next few months as new anti-corruption rules are implemented. It will be a long and difficult process because the system of favoured contractors, with Mafia profiting from inflated charges, has to be dismantled and replaced. The system appears to have been pervasive.

Whether Tremblay himself goes or stays is less important than undertaking the cleanup. Sustaining it will be up to the administration chosen by residents next November.

Integrity has to be the central issue.

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