Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé has ruled that Hawkesbury town council did not contravene the Municipal Act on June 15, 2020 when Mayor Paula Assaly spoke individually with three councillors about employee terminations because the discussions did not meet the act’s definition of a closed session meeting.

A complaint was made to Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s office alleging that these meetings were unlawful closed sessions and as a result, contravened the Municipal Act.

The Ombudsman’s report states that Assaly told the Ombudsman’s office that on June 15, she spoke with three councillors at various locations to determine if they were in favour of terminating the employees.  After each of the councillors stated their support for the terminations, Assaly asked each of them to sign a confidential, two-page typed document explaining the steps they wanted the municipality to take during a closed session the following day if council voted to proceed with the terminations.  Dubé’s office reviewed the document and it specified the employees who were to be terminated, the rationale for the terminations, and named an individual who was to assume new responsibilities.

Each councillor told the Ombudsman that they had individually met with the mayor about the terminations at locations that were convenient to each councillor.  Dubé’s report states that two councillors recalled signing the document, but one could not remember signing it.

The three members of council who did not sign the document said they were not approached by the mayor and were not aware that she was discussing the terminations with the three other councillors.  Two of the councillors told the Ombudsman that they felt left out of the decision-making process and should have been able to participate.  The report states that Assaly explained that she did not approach three of the councillors because she did not believe that they would support the terminations.

Dubé’s report revealed that the mayor believed that the approach she took by having the individual discussions with the three councillors did not contravene the Municipal Act because it did not involve a quorum of council.  The mayor also noted that no decision was made during the individual meetings and that any of the three councillors were still permitted to change their mind when the vote was held the following day.  However, on June 16, the mayor and the three councillors with whom she had spoken voted to proceed with the terminations.

According to Dubé, the Municipal Act requires that a quorum of councillors is required to be present in order for there to be a council meeting, and that no quorum was present on June 15, 2020 because each conversation between Assaly and the three councillors was conducted individually.

However, Dubé noted that these individual meetings went beyond informal discussions.  “Instead, the mayor effectively organized a voting bloc of councillors who strategically agreed ahead of time about how to deal with a specific matter,” he stated.

The report further explains that three councillors who were not approached were denied the opportunity to participate in the discussion and that no formal record of the informal meetings would exist in official minutes.

“Rather than privately canvassing individual council members for support, the mayor could have acted in a more transparent and accountable fashion by introducing this matter at a formal council meeting,” stated Dubé.

However, the Ombudsman’s report does state that during conversations with Assaly, she said it is her preference to bring forward new business at council meetings, but the circumstances of the terminations required a different approach.

Mayor responds

In an interview with The Review, Assaly emphasized that she never met with the three councillors at the same time.

“Elected officials cannot stop anyone from making any complaint to the Ombudsman whether that complaint has merit or not. I knew the complaint had no merit,” Assaly said.

The mayor also said that the complaint did not prevent her from focusing on the advancement of the town and further emphasized that all councillors had the opportunity to express their opinions, change their minds, or suggest alternative solutions.  Assaly noted that following the closed session, the terminations were formally voted upon in a public, recorded vote.

Assaly contended that the councillors who voted against the terminations were not entirely left “out of the loop” on the matter, and that two of them had previously stated that they would not support the terminations.

“It was not a superfluous decision made on the spur of the moment.  As mayor, the time had come for a decision to be made,” said Assaly.