Woodstock's criminally charged mayor, facing sexual assault allegations, continues to take part in civic politics — a stance that sends a negative message to the community, a political scientist says.
Mayor Trevor Birtch, who faces six charges involving two women, took part in Wednesday's Oxford County council meeting, even though that council had approved a motion for him to take a leave of absence provided he requests it in writing.
As of Wednesday, “he has not done so,” Michael Duben, the county’s top administrator, confirmed.
“It’s inappropriate to allow him to continue in a position of authority when he is facing such serious charges,” said Jaquetta Newman, a politics professor at King’s University College in London.
“What does that say to the women in the community? On the one hand, yes, (council) can't punish him because he's not been found guilty . . . But there's still this sense that you have to look after your community, and allowing him to continue to come into council like that is problematic because it’s sending a really bad message.”
London police first charged Birtch, 47, in early February with assault, sexual assault and sexual assault with choking for three alleged incidents last year involving the same woman. Later, in court, the charge of sexual assault with choking was dropped and a second count of sexual assault was added.
More than two months later, police announced three new sexual assault charges against Birtch, over allegations involving a different woman between Jan. 1, 2017, and April 5, 2022.
Birtch hasn't spoken publicly about the charges and has not yet entered any pleas to them in court. He did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Women's advocates and others had argued early on that Birtch should step aside from his mayoral role until the charges are dealt with in court.
In late April, Woodstock city council granted Birtch a paid leave of absence while his case is before the courts. The city's deputy mayor has been acting in his place.
Unlike the county motion, Woodstock council did not require Birtch to expressly request the leave.
Oxford Warden Larry Martin, in an email, wrote that he could not explain why Birtch has not sought a leave from county council. "I have no idea why he has not asked for such."
Sandra Talbot, a Woodstock city councillor who also sits on the Oxford council and is its deputy warden, wouldn't comment Wednesday but said she didn't know ahead of time that Birtch was coming to Wednesday's meeting or that he would stay for the entire session.
Councillors had the option to attend the meeting in person or by video. Birtch attended by video link and took part in voting during the meeting.
Under Ontario’s Municipal Act, politicians facing criminal charges can stay in office even if they’re convicted. Only a jail sentence disqualifies a municipal politician from holding office.
Birtch was elected as Woodstock’s mayor in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.
It's unclear whether Birtch will seek a third term in office during this fall's civic election, but Newman said she believes his continued participation in politics suggests he will.
“He is obviously still wanting to show that he's politically active,” she said. “And he's doing his job as a politician, which I would think is a very strong indicator that he's thinking of running.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press