When a tough woman with a strong and successful background as a journalist comes into a bureaucracy and asks a lot of tough questions, you might expect there would be resistance from an entrenched senior bureaucracy, accustomed to doing things their way.
That is what appears to be behind the conflict in the Côte-des-Neiges– Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough that, we understand, began soon after Sue Montgomery was elected mayor there. It was a breakthrough for Valérie Plante and Projet Montréal and its effort to make inroads into the city’s biggest borough with its largest concentration of Anglophones.
But Plante has shown she is ready take the easy way out by pushing Montgomery to fire her chief of staff as the apparent price for placating a senior and well-entrenched civil servant.
Montgomery, a star journalist for The Gazette who spent a major part of her career there as justice reporter, had a reputation among her colleagues as having a strong work ethic, a digger, someone whose instincts led her to side with victims in any conflict, who sought to discover the story behind the story. Having entered civic politics at a managerial level with no experience, in her initial meetings with senior civil servants in the borough, she began asking lots of questions, to better understand how the borough works, and how its budget of about $68 million was being spent.
It appears, the top civil servants in the borough who make things happen there were unaccustomed to this approach, especially when Montgomery asked for a detailed accounting for exactly how “every cent” in the budget was being spent. She was given a two-page summary, but found this to be unacceptable.
Given that the former borough mayor, Michael Applebaum, was convicted of corruption, and that a former top bureaucrat committed suicide while borough operations were under scrutiny, residents can only applaud Montgomery’s efforts to dig into borough spending in a detailed way. Montgomery replaced the chief of staff who was proposed and accepted, a veteran Projet Montréal activist, because she felt she needed someone who could bolster her approach.
That person she chose, with a decade of experience as a political aide in Ottawa, in effect became Montgomery’s representative, asking questions, seeking information on important issues, and rejecting work that did not meet her standards. How ironic, that when Montgomery asked the Comptroller General’s office for guidance, and they launched an investigation into the workplace climate, investigators would come out with a conclusion that her chief of staff had psychologically harassed two of them.
One of the questions they asked the chief of staff is why she doesn’t smile more. Montgomery has every right to be suspicious of the process, and wonder whether such a question would be posed to a man.
It appears the Comptroller General recommended that the chief of staff not have contact with the top civil servants, and Plante wants her fired. This would appear to be a quid pro quo deal, demanded by a top civil servant as a precondition for agreeing to a departure package.
While Plante denies she told Montgomery the aide had to be fired in order to smooth over a messy situation, the fact that the full report is not being made public, with reasonable redactions, ostensibly because Montgomery’s name is there, is suspicious.
The fact Plante’s Projet Montréal offered to employ the chief of staff to prepare the party for the next election campaign, if Montgomery agrees to fire her, indicates that the psychological harassment finding is ill founded. The end result is that relations between the borough’s chief executive and her top civil servants remain problematic, as the case has now been sent to the Quebec Municipal Commission.
The city has farmed out the file to an outside lawyer, and will have to cover the fees of Montgomery’s lawyer, who first offered to represent her pro bono.
And the taxpayer will end up footing the bill.
Most importantly, Plante has failed to use her office and moral authority to support the borough mayor and her chief of staff when all they ever tried to do was get an entrenched bureaucracy working efficiently and effectively. The same can be said of her fellow borough councilors who are toeing the party line.