Hawkesbury Mayor Paula Assaly wants to focus on making the town government a better place to work, and shift attention away from legal issues which have affected her administration during the past couple of years. 

On Friday, November 26, Assaly announced she is abandoning legal proceedings against former Integrity Commissioner John Saywell, and indirectly, against the municipality.  

According to Assaly, the legal proceedings resulted from a complaint made to Saywell by Director of Human Resources Dominique Dussault against Assaly. Dussault continues to serve in that role in addition to being appointed Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) earlier this year. 

Saywell’s investigation revealed the mayor violated the municipal Code of Conduct, and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act in January 2019, when she 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 investigation found 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 investigation also found that on June 16, 2019, Assaly declared an in-camera session without the prior knowledge of the Clerk or 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. Additionally, Saywell concluded that on July 29, 2020, Assaly intervened by email with a consulting firm regarding granting a municipal contract. 

Saywell filed his report with the town clerk’s office on December 31, 2020, but it was intercepted for reasons of confidentiality and Assaly did not receive a copy until January 12, 2021. The report was not made public until the council meeting of March 8, 2021. 

Assaly faced three sanctions resulting from the investigation. She was required to issue a public apology to former CAO Daniel Gatien, former Director of Recreation and Tourism Nicole Trudeau, and then-Acting CAO Dussault. Assaly was required to receive 24 hours of training from a professional management coach and was not permitted to participate in municipal Committee of the Whole meetings until a new CAO was hired and the obligations of the other two penalties were fulfilled. 

The mayor abided by the sanctions but objected to the methodology and findings of Saywell’s investigation.  

“Mr. Saywell did not question me or my witnesses,” Assaly said on November 26.

The mayor alleged Saywell told her he would contact her as part of his investigation but did not do so. Assaly added that Saywell sent a letter to councillors stating that if she resigned as mayor, he would not file a report of his investigation. She contended the Code of Conduct requires the Integrity Commissioner to file reports to council. 

Assaly launched a legal challenge of Saywell’s investigation in Divisional Court. However, she said some members of council did not want to extend the deadline for court administration to find a bilingual judge who could hear the case in French and instead agreed to let the case proceed in English. That decision led to an injunction relief process which resulted in Assaly reimbursing $35,000 in legal costs to the municipality. 

Assaly now wants to prioritize what she describes as “human capital” and improve the work environment at the town hall. For the past two weeks, Assaly has picketed in front of the town hall each day during the noon hour protesting what she describes as a “toxic climate” for personnel. She would rather see the time and financial resources that have been devoted to legal issues instead invested in improving the workplace. Assaly repeatedly referred to reports dating back to 2014 identifying problems within the municipal workplace. 

“For me, that’s a priority. This needs to change,” she said. 

The challenge for Assaly in achieving those changes is difficult due to a divided council. For the November 26 press conference, the mayor was joined by councillors Lawrence Bogue and Antonios Tsourounakis. All councillors were notified of Assaly’s announcement prior to the press conference on November 26 and were invited to attend. Assaly has not consistently had support from the remaining four councillors. 

“We need collaboration on council,” she remarked. 

Tsourounakis compared the Saywell report to a two-vehicle traffic accident where the role of only one driver was investigated. 

Bogue said Assaly’s decision to abandon the legal proceedings does not eliminate the problems at the town hall, but it is time to focus on the future. 

“The issue is for the town to go forward.” 

Assaly believes employees with a good work environment are better inclined to provide good service to taxpayers. 

Lawrence Bogue, left, and Antonios Tsourounakis, middle, were the only two Hawkesbury councillors to attend a November 26 press conference called by Mayor Paula Assaly, seated at right. Photo: James Morgan