Councillor Roxane Villeneuve breached North Stormont’s code of conduct, says township’s integrity commissioner

Above, North Stormont Councillor Roxane Villeneuve addresses the North Stormont Council Chamber Jan. 14 after the township’s integrity commissioner, lawyer Tony Fleming of Kingston, presented his findings that she violated council’s code of conduct, on a number of matters.

BERWICK — Councillor Roxane Villeneuve’s talk — both verbal and virtual — has landed her in hot water with North Stormont Township’s integrity commissioner.

Several code of conduct infractions were tallied by commissioner Tony Fleming on Tuesday night. They involved — among other things — the rookie councillor’s description of North Stormont Council as a “Mickey Mouse organization” and “Old Boys Club;” the “tone” and “attitude” of her emailed communications with township staff; her use of profanity at a closed council meeting; her public disclosure of confidential information concerning a former staff member; and her talking with a lawyer involved in legal action with the municipality.

Although rumoured for months, it wasn’t until Fleming, a Kingston-based lawyer, took his place at the podium in the packed Council Chambers that residents had official confirmation of the previously secret deliberations against the councillor. 

Deputy Mayor Frank Landry and councillors Randy Douglas and Steve Densham made nine complaints to the commissioner last August, prompting the investigation previously unacknowledged on record by any of the involved principals.  (In Ontario, allegations made to a municipal integrity commissioner are treated as confidential; NVN was met by a series of “no comments” when attempting to confirm such action against Villeneuve last summer and fall.)

Fleming imposed two immediate penalties on Villeneuve — one month’s loss of pay and a reprimand —  but also recommended council “sanction” the councillor with a six-month email blackout and prohibition against directing staff. Council obliged while the respondent bitterly complained it was a conflict of interest for the three complainants to act as her “judge and jury” by voting to apply the recommended sanctions.

See the evening’s proceedings in the video below. The meeting takes a few moments to get underway as Villeneuve disputes the appointment of an acting Chief Administrative Officer in place of Craig Calder, described during the meeting as being on sick leave. Township lawyer Stephen Ault clarifies that the meeting can proceed, and Mary McQuaig — formerly of the Nation Municipality — is installed into the position. North Stormont’s hired Integrity Commissioner, Tony Fleming of Kingston, delivers his report finding that Councillor Roxane Villeneuve breached the township’s code of conduct in relation to complaints brought against her by three of her council colleagues.

The complaints 

  • On the first allegation levelled against Villeneuve — that she “solicited” individuals to attend the July 9, 2019, meeting to heckle council and staff — Fleming reported “insufficient evidence” and no breach of the code.
  • Fleming upheld the second complaint that Villeneuve improperly disclosed the identity of an unsuccessful job applicant during an open session during that same July meeting. At the time, Villeneuve, angry with new CAO Craig Calder’s abrupt dismissal of former finance director Catherine Borrelly, revealed the latter staffer had been a “top contender” for the post that ultimately went to Calder. Calder was not present at Tuesday night’s council meeting and was described by Mayor Jim Wert as having gone on stress or sick leave. Council installed Mary McQuaig, formerly of The Nation Municipality, as acting CAO as the session got underway.
  • Fleming upheld a third complaint that Villeneuve “referred to certain members of council as quote, an ‘Old Boys Club, end quote, and accused certain members of meeting in secret” — noting that this constituted “harassment as defined under the code of conduct.”
  • On the fourth complaint, Fleming found that Villeneuve did use profane language while leaving a July 5 closed session, did refer to council as a “Mickey Mouse organization” and did tell Councillor Douglas: “Randy, laugh all you want because you’re going down.” While Villeneuve apologized for the profanity, she didn’t for the remark to Councillor Douglas,” the commissioner added, noting “this was not conduct acceptable under the code.”
  • On the fifth complaint, Fleming expressed confidence in Villeneuve’s assertion of having provided “no information” when she interacted with a lawyer involved in litigation against the township — a matter that came to light during an April 23 closed council meeting. However, because their exchange still “dealt with” that legal matter, it was a breach of the code, according to the commissioner.
  • But he cleared the councillor of contravening the code in a sixth allegation involving emailed correspondence to council “on a very specific topic” again involving litigation, with the suggestion she would “take matters into her own hand” if council didn’t pursue a particular course of action. “We don’t find the conduct rises to a breach of the code with respect to that behaviour,” said Fleming.
  • Nor did the councillor contravene the social media section of the code when she used Facebook to ask the public for ideas on how to spend an unexpected $500,000 grant the township received from the province, said Fleming, dismissing that eighth complaint.
  • But he upheld the ninth complaint involving Villeneuve’s email communications with the top bureaucrat at the township. “Our finding is, the totality of the discourse between the councillor and the CAO was not appropriate. It did not deliver the tone, the content, the attitude that would be expected of a member of council towards a member of staff.”

The blackout period now imposed on Villeneuve prevents her from sending email to township staff or her fellow council members for six months — with strict exceptions. The sanction, the commissioner explained, was meant to address one of the issues common to many of the complaints — email usage — and “reset” the relationship with council. “To create a more respectful environment under which you can do your jobs.”

On the subject of her speaking to that lawyer involved in a legal matter against the township, Villeneuve sought clarification from Fleming, asking if she could socialize with a friend or acquaintance. “Are you saying that we cannot communicate in a social setting whatsoever?”

“That’s not what I said, and that’s not what I found in the report,” replied Fleming, explaining that only communications related to the litigation would have been inappropriate between the councillor and the lawyer.

The councillor replied by insisting they never crossed that line — and had told the commissioner such during his investigation. “We were in a social setting, and there was no discussion of the matter.”

But Fleming refused to engage. “The findings of my report stand on their own,” he retorted. “The findings of fact, the conclusions, are what they are, and I’m not going to debate them with council at this time.”

Fleming left the meeting soon after delivering his presentation.

Villeneuve defiant

A defiant Villeneuve condemned the commissioner’s investigation and report as “an abuse of the complaints system,” adding, “It is no secret I have become a thorn in my colleagues’ side, so to speak. I vehemently believe that they wish to silence me, to reinforce the culture of secrecy which characterizes council business, and to suppress inquiry into the affairs of the township.”

The code of conduct, she declared, “is not intended as a tool to stifle discussion and silence dissenters.”

The sanctions around email communications in particular violate her statutory obligations as a councillor and her oath of office, she said to applause by her supporters in the room.

Township lawyer Stephen Ault — in the audience that evening with his law practice colleague Mally McGregor — told Villeneuve she could seek remedy in court if she desired.

Ault also served up legal advice on sanctions being applied by — in this situation — the complainants. The Winchester-based lawyer told council that board members have sat in judgment of one another since the 1700s. 

With that debate settled, Councillor Densham then suggested Villeneuve herself shouldn’t be allowed to vote — when she called for the vote to be recorded so she could officially abstain. Fleming seemed to give some credence to Densham’s thought, but Mayor Jim Wert called for the vote anyway, with all predictably in favour except the respondent.

“These steps were taken to try and straighten things out, so we can try and finish the balance of our term with the mandate we were charged with, to look after the municipality,” observed Wert. “Our hope is that out of this will come something positive, that’s going to allow us to maximize our potential as a council …”

During the public question period after the meeting, Villeneuve’s partner, Garfield Dunlop, a former Tory MPP, stood up to say her late father, former Tory Agriculture Minister Noble Villeneuve, would be proud of her. 

“No he wouldn’t,” piped up a voice in the audience, where there were evident factions both for and against the Moose Creek-based councillor.

The integrity commissioner exercise is reputed to have cost North Stormont taxpayers $30,000.

 

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