DISCLAIMER: Any information or details in this opinion article pertaining to the 2019 budget in the Municipality of Pontiac that are incorrect or misleading are the responsibility of the Municipality of Pontiac, its Council and administrative staff due to the lack of 2019 budget documentation released to the public at the time of its alleged passing into law and the publication of this article.
Public notices 1950s style
*This article contains hyperlinks
Each year for the past 7 years I have attended the special public meeting in which the budget for the upcoming year, along with the 3-year plan, are unveiled to the public and passed into law. Each year, the exercise has taken place in pretty much the same fashion, but this year’s budget meeting took a strange turn from the usual format.
Like most everyone else, I learned of the time and place of the meeting early in the afternoon of December 19th. The Municipality published a notice on its website (and subsequently on Facebook) around noon calling the meeting for the following day, December 20th, at 7:30pm. The meeting was to be held in the tiny library in Luskville instead of the usual venue, the larger community centre next door.
Shortly after sharing the notice to Pontiac2020s Facebook page, other citizens in the municipality began contacting me expressing a range between surprise and anger that the municipality had waited until the last day to inform the public of the time for the budget meeting. Some wondered whether the notice was respectful of the municipal code. Another resident who contacted me shared with me an email exchange with Mayor Joanne Labadie where they were assured by the mayor that the notices had been posted in complete accordance with the municipal code.
When it was pointed out to the Mayor in another email exchange that the municipal code called for a public notice to be given at least 8 days before the meeting was to be held, whereas the notice posted on the municipality’s website was published only one day prior to the meeting, Mayor Labadie replied, “The website is not a legal public notice. It is a curtesy [sic].”
The mayor went on to explain in the same email that the notice for the meeting had been posted 9 days prior on each of the bulletin boards located at the Municipality’s three fire stations, as well as the bulletin board at the municipal offices, and that that was the extent of the municipality’s legal obligation to inform the public as to the time and place of the budget adoption meeting.
In fact, the mayor is very wrong. But putting that aside for a moment, the idea that Mme. Labadie assumes that it is reasonable to expect residents in a rural municipality as expansive as the municipality of Pontiac, to physically travel on a regular basis to one of the four municipal bulletin boards in order to stay informed of important meetings of public interest in a timely manner, is absurdist in the extreme in an age when governments at all levels are trying to discourage wasteful travel by automobile to combat climate change, not to mention the ubiquity of the Internet in our daily lives.
A Director General Emeritus?
Three weeks prior to the December 20th budget adoption meeting Council convened an impromptu special meeting on November 28th to begin the process of terminating the employment relationship between the Municipality and then-Director General Benedikt Kuhn. A resolution was passed at the meeting to appoint a lawyer to accompany Mayor Joanne Labadie in negotiations with Mr. Kuhn. Six days later on December 4th, Council passed a resolution to accept the terms and conditions of the negotiated settlement with Mr. Kuhn and to terminate his employment with the municipality. No information has been given to the public as to the reasons termination was sought against Benedikt Kuhn, or the details and costs of the negotiated settlement reached with the former Director General.
So it was with some surprise that I found Mr. Kuhn present for the budget meeting on December 20th. Equally surprising was that as early as December 14th his name appeared on Transcollins’ website as their development agent. So on December 20th, Mr. Kuhn had two jobs: One with the Municipality of Pontiac as Director General, and another with Transcollins, a public transportation agency, which receives funding from the Municipality of Pontiac.
In 2017, the Municipality of Pontiac (MoP) had no trouble providing the "courtesy" of publishing a public notice on Facebook for its 21st of December 2018 budget meeting 7 days prior on the 14th of December
The evolution of a previously stated position
With only a tiny handful of residents in attendance – including the incoming General Director, Charlotte Laforest, seated in the public gallery – the 2019 budget meeting was called to order in probably the smallest venue in the municipality: the Luskville Library. Fortuitously, the Luskville Community Centre was in use by Pontiac’s Service de sécurité incendie’s blood donor drive, and the library was apparently the only venue available for the budget meeting; 5 days before Christmas, and one day before the municipality closes down for 12 days during the holidays til January 3rd, 2019.
I phrase it in these terms because by this point, it is reasonable to wonder if the minimalist approach employed by the municipality in issuing the public notice was to aid in bringing as little attention to the budget meeting as necessary, and upon looking closer at some of the available details, it would seem as though this budget may not be particularly palatable to some of the rate-payers who are going to get stuck footing the bill. Then there’s the conspicuous lack of documentation – available in all previous years – such as the mayor’s statement and the actual budget document itself. Add to this that absolutely no documentation is available for the 2019 budget on the municipality’s website as of the date of the publication of this article. Another first!
In all my adult life, I cannot remember another single instance when a government in this country has passed a budget into law while not making copies of that budget available to the media and to the public.
But the problems with this situation do not end there.
During the first question period open to the public at the meeting I simply asked the Mayor in French if council was going to proceed despite the meeting being illegal.
“It is not illegal,” answered Mayor Labadie in French, adding, “I know that certain people by email and on social media say that our meeting is not legal and doesn’t conform to the regulations in the municipal code. The municipal code is clear, we must announce . . . the meeting for the budget eight days in advance. We did that. Legal notices, [according to] MAMOT [are for] the three fire stations where there are bulletin boards for announcements, and the community centres. 1
“The Internet services – the website, social networks – are not a legal notice, they’re just a courtesy we do for the citizens,” continued Labadie. “So the legal notices were done on December 12 at fire stations 1-2-3 in Quyon, in Breckenridge and here in Luskville and in the municipal centre.”
The Mayor’s self-assured allocution may have sounded convincing, but was still largely incorrect. Still in French I followed up that according to the municipal code, it is prescribed that public notices be published on the Internet.
“Um, non!,” asserted Labadie immediately, “La loi 122,” the Mayor began, as I started to read the pertinent section of the municipal code:
“Subject to the third paragraph of article 433.3, a municipality may, by by-law, determine the terms governing publication of its public notices. These terms may differ according to the type of notice, but the bylaw must prescribe their publication on the Internet.” (emphasis mine)
Raising on a busted flush
“We have not passed that by-law,” Mayor Labadie responded in English, turning the floor over to out-going Director General Benedikt Kuhn. M. Kuhn elaborated further: “That’s a change that was brought in with project Loi 122, so municipalities that want to use the Internet as the legal means of giving their public notices, have to update their ‘réglement d’affichage’ which this municipality has not done, so we’re back to our default locations for public notices, which are the three fire halls.”
So, does the Mayor believe that 1 day is adequate to notify the public of a budget adoption meeting?
“Uh well I’m not saying that it’s necessarily appropriate but until we pass the by-law to change the Loi 122 and apply new regulations, if that is what council wishes to do, these are the current by-laws. So the municipal budget is always adopted on the Thursday before Christmas break, there’s no change, it was last year on the same day, it’s always on a Thursday.”
The problem is, is that everything you have just read in the last two statement’s by the Mayor and former Director General are a tortured contortion of what the Municipal Code actually says; and statement’s like these lay bare the Mayor’s, the Council’s and the former Director General’s misinterpretation of not only the letter, but the spirit of the municipal code.
A non-existent distinction
Both the Mayor and former Director General seem to be seeking cover behind the false distinction of “legal” as a means of confusing the issue.
The municipal code devotes an entire chapter to public notices, showing that the Province does not see public notices as a courtesy in any way. Nowhere in that chapter is the term ‘legal public notice’ used. In fact, the word ‘legal’ isn’t used in that chapter at all. And that is because the Province doesn’t make any distinctions between public notices that are legal and those that are not. All public notices from the municipality, regardless of the medium used, are legal public notices.
The Municipality of Pontiac (MoP) is a legal entity, and when it speaks, on any subject, it’s official. The Facebook post on the 19th of December is as official as the sheets of paper pinned to a bulletin board, as is the notice posted on the MoP’s website. The MoP doesn’t have the luxury of saying that what it posts on its website is not something that it can be held to. Nor can it say that whatever it publishes on its website is a courtesy to the public. The tax payers in this municipality are not spending thousands of dollars a year maintaining a website as a courtesy. We pay for it because it is the fastest and most efficient way of disseminating information in the 21st century and we expect it to be used as such.
Above left and center: On December 12th the MoP posted notices for the Red Cross tornado assistance information on its Facebook page. On the same day, the MoP placed written notices on four bulletin boards throughout the municipality informing the public of the upcoming budget adoption meeting scheduled for December 20th. The Municipality waited 8 more days before posting the same notice on its website and to social media (above right) the day before the meeting, citing it as a "courtesy."
But this notion that informing the public in a timely fashion is a courtesy is not a reflection of anything in the municipal code, but rather a window into our current mayor’s mindset concerning transparency. How else can it be explained that at the very same moment that someone at the municipal offices was taking the time to post notices for tornado assistance on the municipality’s Facebook page on December 12th, they elected not to post the notice for the budget meeting as well, opting instead to only send photocopies of the notice along with a box of thumbtacks by truck to Quyon and then Breckenridge to stick the notice on a bulletin board. The municipality may have a legal obligation to post them there, but nothing in the law stops the MoP from posting the notice on the Internet. As a matter of fact, the law obliges them to do just that.
Does the Mayor, former Director General and members of Council actually believe that anyone consults any of the outdoor bulletin boards to get their information about important council meetings? Do they really think that the notice would achieve more exposure tacked to an outdoor bulletin board at a fire station than it would have being posted on the Internet? Or did they prefer to try and concoct a quasi-legal technicality that would allow them to give notice of the meeting in such a way that very few residents would actually see the notice? Is it because they fear the tax increases and wild spending slated for the next three years would provoke anger in tax payers that could have resulted in a large crowd showing up for the meeting to protest the budget? I’ll leave readers to arrive at their own conclusions.
“We have not passed that by-law”
With that statement, Mayor Labadie seems to think that amendments to the municipal code require the ratification of her and council before they are valid. But that’s not the case.
The Municipal Code is the law that must be adhered to by all municipalities in Québec. Any changes or amendments to the code come into force as soon as the bill proposing those amendments achieves parliamentary assent. At that moment, whatever the municipal code prescribes must be adhered to. So when Québec amended the code to include the obligation that public notices be published on the Internet, that became a requirement the moment the bill received assent.
There is no provision in the law for the Mayor, Council or the Director General to put the cart in front of the horse by saying that they haven’t passed their own by-law respecting the municipal code. Municipal by-laws do not supersede provincial laws or the municipal code. And even if there was a grace period to allow municipalities to conform to the amended law, just how long does Mme. Labadie and M. Kuhn think they have to do so? Bill 122 received assent on June 16th, 2017, one-and-a-half years ago!
As an analogy, if the Municipality of Pontiac amends a by-law lowering the speed limit on one of its roads from 60 to 40km/h, once that by-law comes into force, a motorist cannot plead that they have the right to drive 60km/h on the road because they haven’t gotten around to recognizing the law.
On June 16th, 2017, it became part of the municipal code for cities, towns and municipalities throughout Québec to post their public notices on the Internet. Period. The MoP doesn’t have a special exemption that allows it to maintain the distinction that its public notices posted on the Internet are not legal and therefore don’t have to comply with the requirement that it be posted eight days prior to a budget adoption meeting.
Numerous attempts to find the so-called ‘réglement d’affichage’ cited by former Director General (DG) Benedikt Kuhn on the municipality’s website have come up empty, so its existence and substance cannot be examined at this time. However, both the Mayor and DG made a couple of statements which contradict the municipal code.
After I read to them the article in the code that stated that the municipality must publish their public notices on the Internet, both the Mayor and DG wrongly re-phrased what the law says to make it sound like a choice.
“That’s a change that was brought in with project Loi 122,” said Mr. Kuhn, “so municipalities that want to use the Internet as the legal means of giving their public notices, have to update their ‘réglement d’affichage’. . .” followed by Mme. Labadie’s “. . . but until we pass the by-law to change the Loi 122 and apply new regulations, if that is what council wishes to do, these are the current by-laws.”
It is not want, not wishes, but must. The word legal is irrelevant: there is no such distinction in the municipal code.
The word Internet appears only three times in the municipal code in two different articles. In each case it is used with the word must as a qualifier. There is no option here for the MoP to choose whether it complies or not. Article 433.1 of the municipal code establishes that publication to the Internet must be done when issuing public notices. Article 956 of the code mandates that “At least eight days before the sitting at which the budget or the three-year program of capital expenditures is to be adopted, the secretary-treasurer must give public notice thereof. The draft budget and the draft three-year program of capital expenditures must be available to members of the council as soon as the public notice is given.” That is the letter of the law.
The spirit of the law is reflected in Article 433.3: “The [municipality’s] regulation must prescribe measures that promote the dissemination of information that is complete, that citizens find coherent and that is adapted to the circumstances.” (emphasis mine) I think the Internet falls squarely into the latter category. Trying to advance the nonsensical argument that the Internet is a courtesy in the 21st Century is insulting to one’s intelligence and makes a mockery of the concept of transparency.
The totality of the documentation provided to the public at the meeting to adopt the 2019 budget on December 20th. Not included was the actual budget document itself containing a more detailed accounting of the state of the Municipality's finances,
Although not available on the municipal website, Pontiac2020.ca is providing copies of the documents that can be seen and downloaded here
My dog ate my budget document
At the meeting to adopt the budget only a meager handful of copies of each of the 2019 budget documents were made available to the public. Missing however, were the actual budget booklet itself containing the Mayor’s statement, detailing among other things, what the tax increase may be and the contributing factors to its possible rise.
I was not present for the remainder of the meeting, but some who remained for the rest of the meeting told me afterwards that the tax increase was projected to be 4.5% for each of the next three years. That may not be accurate, but that’s what you get when you poorly roll out a budget with few members of the public and media present where you don’t even bother to provide a copy of the budget. The next day, another member of the local media reported to me that they contacted the Municipality to obtain a copy of the budget, but were told that the Director General, still Benedikt Kuhn, “had to approve it” before copies of the 2019 budget would be released to the public. Unsurprisingly, he did not approve their release.
So, tax payers must wait until January 3rd – 14 days after the budget was supposedly passed into law – when the municipal offices re-open after the Christmas holidays, to maybe get a copy, to find out how much they’re on the hook.
Some residents have household budget’s to plan, and this information is kind of important; not to mention the businesses in our municipality who need this information as soon as possible to start planning their next fiscal year.
Looking at the available budget documents we see that the municipality incurred a deficit of around $181,000. Not that terrible a year after a life-changing flood and the freak tornado of 2018, along with other financial missteps like Alary Road. A little concerning however is the Program of Capital Expenditures for the next 3 years.
The Municipality of Pontiac foresees spending somewhere in the vicinity of $20 million over the course of the upcoming triennial. The largest part of that spending will go towards resurfacing roads to the tune of around $9 million. Coming in second, $4 million will be spent on the construction of two new fire stations (with modern bulletin boards, I hope) in Luskville and Quyon. Next are upgrades and repairs to the water treatment infrastructure in Quyon, requiring over $2 million of the projected capital expenditures. Include with that roughly another $1 million to renew the municipality’s vehicle fleet, all swallowing up around $16 million. The remaining $3-4 million will go towards – in order of their amount – a boat ramp in an unspecified location, improvements to Luskville’s and Quyon’s recreational parks, and the construction of a park somewhere in ward 5.
Pontiac’s Service de sécurité incendie will benefit from the plan with the procurement of some well-deserved equipment such as an emergency generator, a rescue boat, a new set of Jaws-of-Life and other much needed gear with a portion of the remainder.
In total, the spending equals about 2 ½ times of the MoP’s annual budget. Taken over three years, it represents the potential addition of 3-to-4 million dollars per year to the future fiscal burden; in other words, the municipality could go from having a budget of around $8M to $12M, then to $16M and then $20M in the four year period between 2018-21. That means that the tax-payer base would be required to grow from 5,000 to 10,000 to 15,000 to 20,000, to keep pace with the mathematics of this type of economy. That could equal urban sprawl and spell the destruction of this rural farming community.
Of the total $20M in projected spending in the 3-year plan, around half of that represents money that is or will be borrowed. Money that is and will be borrowed with interest, so the final repayment always grows. The items in the 3-year plan are not extravagant or unnecessary, just perhaps a little ambitious in their pacing. In the current economy it may be a tiny bit rich to move too quickly on new fire stations and bunch of new vehicles, the costs of both being prone to economic fluctuations that are sure to drive those costs up in an atmosphere that most predictions are leaning towards a tightening in the economy.
The Municipality has so far only allocated this money and can modify its direction at any time, so the real test in the pudding lies in how Council and the Administration manages this for the next three years. This may be astute financial planning or a missed bet. Only time will tell.
The warm and inviting municipal bulletin board located at the Breckenridge firehall in ward 6. According to Mayor Joanne Labadie, this is one of three outdoor bulletin boards that residents will have to regularly consult to ensure that they are informed in a timely manner of any important public notices the Municipality of Pontiac may issue. (click on image to see full-sized inset image)
10 pounds of hogwash in a 5-pound bag
So the Municipality posted public notices for the budget meeting on a bunch of bulletin boards barely anyone checks, in conformity with the municipal code, while waiting until the day before the meeting to post it on the Internet where everyone would see it but not respecting the municipal code. The Municipality took the position that it had no legal obligation to post the notice on the Internet and that the municipal code didn’t oblige them to do so. Then they admitted that the municipal code does say that they have to post the notices on the Internet, but that they didn’t have to comply with that requirement until they chose to do so, and only if they chose to do so, which is not accurate.
The budget was written with the help of an employee of Transcollins moonlighting as the Director General of the Municipality of Pontiac after being terminated by that very same Municipality. Following the resignation of Assistant Director General and Communications Director Dominic Labrie in early Fall 2018, Council never filled the vacancy. Now with the resignation of Megan Lewis, the MoP’s recreation and community life coordinator, the upper echelons of municipality’s administrative executive staff are exceptionally thin, save for the incoming DG, Charlotte Laforest and Secretary, Manon Papillon. So the administration remains hampered and vulnerable by its lack of personnel, and high turnover rate.
This and boondoggle’s such as Alary road and others do not bode well for the Municipality going forward into the next three years, as the MoP gets ready to spend close to $20 million over that same period. Having a council that seemingly lacks either the courage or the knowledge to do its job isn’t reassuring either.
Following the public question period, the next item on the meeting’s itinerary was the adoption of the agenda. That should not have happened and the meeting should not have proceeded under a cloud that could threaten to put the legal status of the budget in question, having been adopted at a meeting where the public didn’t receive adequate notice reflective of the letter and the spirit of the Municipal Code.
I did not remain for the rest of the meeting given that I didn’t judge the meeting to be taking place in good faith.
Thomas Souliere has been a resident in the Municipality of Pontiac for the past 35 years and is the publisher and a writer for Pontiac2020.ca. He is currently serving a second 3-year term as a member of the municipality’s Planning Advisory Committee (CCU) since 2014.
1 The Mayor’s phrase in French, verbatim, was: « Des annonces légal à propos de MAMOT (sic)* sont les trois caserne de pompier – ont à des places pour . . . les ‘bulletin board’ pour annoncer, et les centre communautaires. »
*(MAMOT, ministère des Affaires municipales et de l'Occupation du territoire, was changed some time ago to MAMH, ministère des Affaires municipales et Habitation.)