The mayor of Sorel-Tracy, Que., is trying to weather a storm gripping city hall with the discovery last week of a hidden microphone in the clerk's office, right next to his.
During an in camera meeting of council Monday in the municipality of 42,000, 85 kilometres northeast of Montreal, Mayor Serge Péloquin outlined his reasons for conducting electronic surveillance, as well as his findings.
According to Radio-Canada, the mayor confessed to having planted the recording device and said he has been monitoring the clerk's conversations for at least a year. He said he had real and serious reasons for his actions.
Although Monday's meeting was behind closed doors, Radio-Canada has obtained details from various sources with knowledge of the affair, which has shaken public servants and elected officials.
"Everyone is in shock," said a city bureaucrat.
"The work environment is destroyed," an elected official said.
Neither the employees nor the councillors are authorized to speak about the case because of ongoing investigations, including by the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), however, some say they are left wondering if they, too, have been the subject of eavesdropping.
According to a source familiar with the investigation, only the city clerk, René Chevalier, was spied on. The mayor had placed a small webcam on a shelf in his office, apparently using only the device's microphone, in order to collect evidence to support his allegations against Chevalier.
Last week, the mayor suspended the clerk for 30 days.
Péloquin declined an interview, saying he must report to municipal council on May 2 and file the reasons for the clerk's suspension.
At Monday's closed-door meeting, Radio-Canada learned, Péloquin told elected officials he suspected Chevalier of demonstrating a lack of loyalty and ethics. He alleged the clerk was indiscreet and didn't respect his duty to maintain confidentiality.
The mayor said he could hear the clerk's conversations through a shared wall for years. Péloquin reportedly warned the clerk to stop commenting on him, but to no avail.
The recording of the clerk's conversations was not continuous. Instead, the mayor explained, he would activate the device when he overheard comments that displeased him.
3 investigations underway
An investigation by the Commission municipale du Québec, an independent body that oversees governance and management of Quebec municipalities, is already underway, and commission officials are expected to go to Sorel-Tracy to question the mayor on Tuesday.
The SQ's major crimes unit is also looking into the case, following a complaint made against the mayor.
"The circumstances surrounding the event will be analyzed to determine whether or not there was a criminal offence," said Stéphane Tremblay, an SQ spokesperson.
The municipality's executive director, Carlo Fleury, is also looking into who was aware of the spying. According to Radio-Canada's sources, Fleury is shocked by the situation and fears a general loss of confidence in the mayor by employees.
Fleury ''informed city council that a device that could be used for wiretapping had been found, hidden, in the office of a managerial employee," said Dominic Brassard, a spokesperson for the municipality, confirming an internal investigation is underway.
If indeed the recording has been going on for at least a year, that means eavesdropping would have been occurring during the last municipal election campaign — when the clerk acted as the chief electoral officer for the municipality.
Elected officials are worried because they went to the clerk's office to register their candidacy and could have had unfavourable conversations about the mayor.
Péloquin and Chevalier have a history of conflict. In recent years, the mayor criticized the clerk for failing to declare his conflict of interest when his son-in-law obtained a contract to film council meetings. That contract was terminated, and after going to tender, the job ultimately went to the mayor's son.
Legality of spying
Péloquin told council that Section 52 of the Cities and Towns Act gave him the right to carry out covert recordings.
An excerpt from the article states, "The mayor shall exercise the right of superintendence, investigation and control over all the departments and officers or employees of the municipality, except the chief auditor."
Under certain circumstances, an employer does have the right to monitor its employees electronically.
However, since surveillance is an invasion of privacy, those reasons must be well-founded, said France Rivard, legal advisor to the Société québécoise d'information juridique (SOQUIJ), in a 2017 interview with Radio-Canada.
"To install a monitoring mechanism, its purpose must be legitimate," she said. "They must prove that the measure put in place is necessary."
Lawyers specializing in labour law and municipal law consulted by Radio-Canada doubt that issues of loyalty are reasonable grounds for spying on an employee, unlike serious cases of fraud or theft.
"Section 52 allows the mayor to ask officials question, to have access to information, but not to produce new information by wiretapping," said Université de Sherbrooke law Prof. Guillaume Rousseau.
"There's proportionality to respect," he said. "The mayor will have to demonstrate that he didn't kill a fly with a sledgehammer. If he engaged in misuse, if he violated the rights of the person being monitored, such as respect of privacy, he is liable to be sued for damages."
Municipal Affairs minister aware
In Quebec City, a spokesperson for the office of inister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Andrée Laforest said he's "very mindful of the current situation in Sorel-Tracy."
"If the Commission municipale du Québec deems that a rapid intervention is necessary, even before the end of its current investigation … a recommendation to that effect will be made to us," said Bénédicte Trottier Lavoie, a spokesperson for the minister. "If necessary, we will not hesitate to follow up."
The file is now in the hands of the new Municipal Integrity Investigations and Prosecutions Branch, set up on April 1 to deal with disclosures of wrongdoing in the municipal sector.
Péloquin sits on the training committee of the Union des Municipalités du Québec (UMQ). UMQ spokesperson Patrick Lemieux declined to comment on what he called "the spying situation" in Sorel-Tracy.