Hawkesbury Mayor Paula Assaly is facing sanctions from town council after the municipal Integrity Commissioner found that she violated the municipal Code of Conduct, and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. The Integrity Commissioner’s report was made public at a regular Hawkesbury council meeting on March 8. The portion of the meeting related to the presentation of the report was chaired by Hawkesbury Councillor Antonios Tsourounakis.
On November 19, 2020, Integrity Commissioner John Saywell received a request for an investigation and determined that it should proceed to determine if the mayor had exceeded her authority by interfering in administrative operations, engaged in abusive relations with staff, and failed in her duties of confidentiality by communicating with third parties without the authorization of council.
The report found that in January 2019, Assaly unilaterally intervened in the process of preparing a government infrastructure grant application by taking the mandate away from the administration and giving it to an outside firm. The report says that in June 2019, the mayor interfered by unilaterally giving the Chenail Cultural Centre the responsibility for selling permits for the adjacent boat ramp and docks. The report also states that on June 16, 2019, Assaly declared an in-camera session without the prior knowledge of the Clerk or Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) that led to the dismissal of former Director of Recreation and Tourism Nicole Trudeau and two other managers from the department. At that same meeting, according to the report, Assaly moved to designate a replacement for one of the positions without the knowledge of the Clerk and CAO. The report also says that on July 29, 2020, Assaly intervened by email with a consulting firm regarding granting a municipal contract.
Former CAO Daniel Gatien and former Clerk Christine Groulx have since left their positions with the Town of Hawkesbury and other municipal employees have also resigned.
“Numerous resignations by staff indicate the degree of reprobation by staff of the lack of elementary respect for the separation of powers between the council and the town administration,” stated Saywell in his report.
The interference with administrative roles is something that Saywell attributed to the “entrepreneurial spirit” of Assaly and certain unspecified members of council.
Saywell’s report also states that another reason for the mayor’s actions with respect to matters involving the Chenail Cultural Centre are “her personal preoccupation with the Chenail’s role in the town,” and past animosity between the facility and the recreation department.
The Integrity Commissioner’s investigation states that Director of Human Resources Dominique Dussault, who is currently serving as Acting CAO, received an unspecified number of complaints from employees of workplace harassment from the mayor. The report states that Dussault attempted to have council address harassment prevention, but without success.
Employee testimony condensed in the report indicates examples of behaviour by Assaly that Saywell believed could be perceived as “vexatious and sometimes threatening or intimidating.” These examples, according to the report, include the mayor’s exclusion of the recreation department from a review of a consultant’s report on plans for Confederation Park, indicating to the CAO that she did not want any contact with then-Recreation Director Trudeau, and that following the dismissal of Trudeau and the two other recreation employees, other employees in the department felt vulnerable.
The report identifies examples of what could be perceived as intimidating behaviour by Assaly toward the former CAO, Acting CAO, and other municipal staff.
Saywell’s investigation concludes that Assaly was in violation of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act when she intervened to influence the management of the harassment complaints that had been made against her by suggesting the name of an individual whom she preferred to act as an independent investigator.
“Her participation in the management process for these complaints does not meet the test of impartiality required by her Declaration of Office and undermines the integrity of the process,” stated Saywell.
The report identifies that on another occasion, Assaly attempted to suggest a substitute integrity commissioner be appointed to investigate a complaint against her, and says that she should not have participated in the debate on that subject. Saywell also identified that Assaly should not have participated in a vote by council on November 23, 2020 which approved a settlement and discharge for a former employee because her independence and objectivity could not be ensured.
Nonetheless, Saywell said the investigation process was not about placing the blame on one person, and referred to pre-existing problems inside the town’s administrative organization, as well as a previous investigation of the workplace.
In 2011 and 2018, Alternative RH, an outside Human Resources firm, reported a series of difficulties in Hawkesbury’s municipal political culture. These included repeated conflicts between council and administrative staff, and a “culture of indiscretion” where councillors sometimes exceeded their authority with staff.
At its March 8 meeting, council endorsed all three penalties for Assaly, which were recommended by Saywell. Council could have chosen one, some, all or no sanctions as a result of the Integrity Commissioner’s report.
The mayor is required to issue a public apology to the former CAO, former Director of Recreation and Tourism, and the Acting CAO. Assaly is required to receive 24 hours of training from a professional management coach, and she is not to participate in municipal Committee of the Whole meetings until a new CAO has been hired and the obligations of the other two penalties have been fulfilled.
In response to Saywell’s report, Assaly called the experience “an exercise of apprenticeship.”
However, in a reply kept to 10 minutes in length following Saywell’s presentation at the March 8 meeting, Assaly said that neither she, nor her administrative assistant, were given the opportunity to answer questions during the investigation. She also stated her preference to keep Saywell’s report confidential was not respected and that some of his findings do not respect decisions made by council. Assaly also claimed that some of the allegations in the report are false, particularly involving the maintenance of Confederation Park and alleged interference in a grant application.
“Mr. Saywell is missing his obligations as Integrity Commissioner,” said Assaly.
The mayor is disputing the findings of the report and has submitted it to Divisional Court for a judicial review.