Hawkesbury mayor sanctioned for 'vexatious behaviour'

·3 min read
Hawkesbury Mayor Paula Assaly addresses a virtual meeting of council on March 8, 2021, where an integrity commissioner presented findings that she had interfered with staff duties. Assaly disputes the findings and is seeking a judicial review. (Youtube - image credit)
Hawkesbury Mayor Paula Assaly addresses a virtual meeting of council on March 8, 2021, where an integrity commissioner presented findings that she had interfered with staff duties. Assaly disputes the findings and is seeking a judicial review. (Youtube - image credit)

The town council in Hawkesbury, Ont., has approved sanctions against Mayor Paula Assaly after an integrity commissioner found she'd made "vexatious comments" to staff and "interfered" in their work.

Assaly's colleagues voted four to one at their March 8 meeting that she must apologize, get at least 24 hours of professional coaching to develop her leadership skills, and be temporarily removed from meetings of the committee of the whole.

John Saywell, a lawyer whose term as integrity commissioner ended on Dec. 31, investigated after receiving a complaint Nov. 19, 2020, that the mayor of the town of 10,000 east of Ottawa had contravened the code of conduct.

It was sparked by a closed-door meeting of the committee of the whole on June 16, 2020, in which Assaly had a resolution adopted that led to the dismissal of three of the recreation department's four senior employees.

However, Assaly's proposal was put forward "without claiming any pertinent cause, and without any warning to the administration," Saywell wrote in his report.

The city clerk resigned the next day, followed by several long-time employees, according to the report.

"This gesture unleashed a series of events which today place the town of Hawkesbury in almost complete chaos," Saywell wrote in the report, filed on his last day in the role.

Several other incidents

The June 2020 meeting, however, was just one of several incidents in which Assaly had been accused of "overreaching the authority and powers of the office of mayor," according to the report.

Saywell pointed to several instances involving the Chenail Cultural Centre in Confederation Park on the Ottawa River.

Assaly had been president of the centre before her 2018 election, and Saywell cited how the mayor prepared grant applications and even directed gardeners how to cut the grass.

When the integrity commissioner's report was made public at Monday's council meeting, Assaly denied that had happened.

John Saywell, whose term as integrity commissioner for Hawkesbury ended in December 2020, concluded that the town's mayor had failed in her duties under the code of conduct.
John Saywell, whose term as integrity commissioner for Hawkesbury ended in December 2020, concluded that the town's mayor had failed in her duties under the code of conduct.(YouTube)

Penalties to 'restore calm'

In addition to interfering with their work, employees were also made to "feel diminished, humiliated, intimidated and sometimes threatened," Saywell's report noted.

Witnesses he spoke to described how the mayor had targeted the recreation department, and that she had ignored the former chief administrative officer's requests that she limit her interference in staff's work.

"These violations have caused major damage to the integrity and stability of governance regime of the town, in particular with the massive departure of senior staff, de-motivation and dysfunctional communication," he concluded.

Saywell said he recommended the three penalties not to punish Assaly, but to correct her behaviour and restore "a certain calm within the town administration."

The toughest sanctions under the Municipal Act could have included 90 days of lost pay.

During Monday's meeting, Saywell told council in French that Hawkesbury is not unique, and that other municipalities are also dealing with issues of misconduct.

He also pointed to the consultations launched by Ontario's PC government on March 5 to improve the accountability of council members when it comes to instances of unacceptable behaviour.

Mayor disappointed, said report violated procedure

Assaly addressed council Monday as well, saying she was disappointed and that the integrity commissioner had violated procedure.

Saywell's report said Assaly "declined to be available for examination" in the lead up to the holidays, but Assaly said he did not give her the chance to respond, nor had he questioned her administrative assistant or her witnesses.

Assaly said she only learned his report had been filed nearly two weeks after he had turned it into the clerk, claiming it contained false allegations.

The findings first came before Hawkesbury council at a Feb. 8 session council kept closed to the public, citing confidentiality rules. Councillors voted that Saywell should publicly present his report at the March 8 meeting.

Assaly has made a motion in Divisional Court for a judicial review.