North Stormont CAO dismisses treasurer, prompts public stir at council meeting

North Stormont Mayor Jim Wert (left) and CAO Craig Calder. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

BERWICK — News of the abrupt dismissal of the township’s Director of Finance (treasurer) hit the fan at a tense North Stormont Council meeting last night, roiling the packed public gallery on matters beyond the recent usual upset surrounding the Nation Rise Wind project. Controversy also swirled over Councillor Roxane Villeneuve’s solo social media request for public feedback on how to spend a $548,000 windfall grant from the province, and her call for council scrutiny over every invoice submitted to the municipality for payment.

The testy July 9 proceedings focused on last Friday’s sudden firing of treasurer Catherine Borelly by the township’s new Chief Administrative Officer, Craig Calder — hired just five weeks ago to head up the administration in Berwick. Borelly is not accused of anything untoward and is, in fact, praised for her “professionalism” in the internal township email announcing her departure to staff  and council — correspondence that angered Villeneuve and wound up publicly circulated in the community before the meeting.

Villeneuve unloaded during her first opportunity at the council table to address the situation, complaining bitterly the decision was undertaken without council involvement.

Both staff and council, she reported, were “notified” via Calder’s July 5 email that Borelly “is no longer employed” by North Stormont. “This decision was based on a new direction for the municipality and required a shift in senior leadership and is no way a reflection on Catherine’s professionalism,” Villeneuve said, reading aloud from Calder’s missive as the CAO sat two chairs away at the same table.

Regime change

Borelly served as North Stormont’s finance director for three and a half years after leaving the treasurer’s post at the Village of Casselman. She was hired during the slightly longer tenure of former North Stormont CAO Marc Chenier — also an alum of the Casselman municipal office — who departed North Stormont’s employ last year.

Villeneuve revealed that Borelly had applied to become the township’s next CAO and was “one of the top contenders” for the job that ultimately went to Calder.

Councillor Roxane Villeneuve, speaking at the July 9 meeting. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Below: Council meetings in North Stormont always conclude with a time for questions from the public, usually a pretty tranquil affair with nary a question asked. Not so on July 9 when the local politicians were peppered with queries about Councillor Roxane Villeneuve’s complaint that she wasn’t being allowed to see the township’s routine invoice payouts. Saying the message was received “loud and clear,” Mayor Jim Wert suggested the township would return to disseminating that information to council members — as it used to be a few years ago. The interaction included questions about the absent deputy clerk and the advisability of hiring a temporary contract employee to handle some of that person’s duties.

“As your elected councillor, I want to make it very clear,” Villeneuve declared to the audience that included a vocal contingent from the Moose Creek Chamber of Commerce, “that there was no prior consultation with council — or prior decisions by council — to terminate Ms. Borelly’s employment here as the director of finance with the township.”

“Furthermore … I am not aware of, or have had any discussions with township staff or knowledge that the municipality is going into a ‘new direction,’ and that it required a shift in senior leadership as suggested by the current CAO,” the councillor added. “I fail to understand how this decision came into effect late Friday afternoon,” the Moose Creek resident said, also expressing “complete disagreement” with the sacking of Borelly in light of extensive credentials the councillor also rhymed off.

Borelly’s performance in North Stormont was, Villeneuve asserted, “exceptional … and instrumental in getting our township’s books in order.”

“She will certainly be an asset to any organization and her colleagues will be lucky to have her,” said Villeneuve, also declaring her personal thanks to the dismissed party (who wasn’t present) for her service to the township.

Calder, during a public question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting, clarified his email wasn’t calling for a change in overall “township” direction, but rather the township office only.  Pointedly adding he wasn’t sure how the document spread to a broader audience beyond the intended recipients on staff and council, he explained: “The intention was to speak to the office environment and a new direction of trust and transparency, collaboration and engaged workforce. That’s what the intention of that message was, not for the direction of the municipality as a whole because that, of course, lies as a responsibility of council.”

Calder denied he was implying a lack of trust and collaboration with the former treasurer when the Moose Creek Chamber of Commerce’s Gerry Montcalm immediately posed that suggestion from the gallery. “That’s not what I said, Gerry, that’s not what I said at all,” the CAO responded.

Standing at his chair, Montcalm also expressed worry that the recent $548,000 provincial grant — awarded by the province last March — “is going to end up in a Catherine Borelly severance package.”

“Not that she’s not due it,” he further opined. “But somebody needs to start making decisions around here that make sense.”

Code of Conduct raised

The subject of the grant also vexed Council — specifically Villeneuve’s recent social media video soliciting public input on how to spend those dollars, garnering over 2,200 views by Sunday evening. The councillor insisted at the meeting that the public be involved in deciding where the money should go.

Deputy Mayor Frank Landry said he accepted Villeneuve’s claim that Ontario’s Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark had recently assured her there were no conditions on how the money could be spent. But Landry pointed out it wasn’t so certain if strings were attached when the grant was first announced. “The minister’s letter stipulated the funding was to transform services delivery and identify more efficient ways for the municipality to operate…. At the time, unconditional or not? It was vague.”

Council’s practice in the previous four years, Landry noted, was to look first to administrative staff for proposals on how to allocate government funding while complying with program rules. “That’s internal, anywhere we could put the money … long-term with efficiencies we could find.”

The deputy mayor also pointed out that township recreation groups are invited to submit “wish lists” for township funding every October. Although he conceded that money was tight last year, “this could potentially change,” Landry said, “but at the same time, we’re three months away from that process.”

And he raised the Code of Conduct issue, highlighting a rule binding all council members to respect the mayor as the source of “any official information … or communication to our communities and the media by the council as a whole.”

“I believe we should have been made aware [of the information from Clark],” Landry said, adding it was “great news” and that he saw “no intent [of breaching the Code of Conduct]” on Villeneuve’s part. “But we have to be made aware of statements made on social media, as a whole, especially the administration and the respect to our mayor, Mr. [Jim] Wert.”

But Villeneuve rejected Landry’s criticism, saying she discovered on Facebook that the deputy mayor and mayor held a “secret” meeting with Premier Doug Ford when he stopped in the township last March. Incensed that neither man had broached the subject of killing the Nation Rise Wind project when they had the premier’s ear, she unhappily recalled how her ensuing proposal to notify all councillors about visiting dignitaries “was kiboshed by this council.”

Councillor Steven Densham — an occasional ally of Villeneuve’s on matters relating to the wind project at the council table — also referenced the Code of Conduct and took a veiled swipe at the release of Calder’s internal email. “These are things I swore to uphold,” said Densham of the Code. “And if I’m not doing that, I’m not just letting down council, I’m not just letting down staff, I’m letting you down as someone who voted for me for councillor. If we don’t agree with this, we can bring that up with council. If people are releasing private information from this table, shame on us.”

New hire to help spend $548K

Villeneuve also found herself offside with the majority when she opposed the hiring of a contract employee to help the township set priorities on spending that $548,000. The task would normally be handled by the deputy clerk, but that individual is currently away from the job for reasons that Calder wouldn’t elaborate upon, citing HR matters. Villeneuve argued the township could be setting itself up for a “constructive dismissal” lawsuit, but Calder disagreed, explaining that Ontario municipalities commonly “backfill” absent workers with contract employees. When the majority voted in the affirmative, Mayor Wert forgot to ask for the hands of those opposed, and the councillor angrily raised a point of order, demanding that her ‘no’ vote be recorded for posterity.

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