Renfrew council working towards restoring public's trust

Renfrew – It was close to 10 p.m. last Tuesday night (April 9) when Renfrew Mayor Tom Sidney made an announcement any mayor would dread to make.

He took no joy when he notified the 8,100 residents of the town that he and his fellow councillors agreed the time had come to formally ask the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate, and if the evidence suggests any wrongdoing, to bring criminal charges against any individual or business who may have profited from the construction of the 96,000 square foot recreational expansion that is currently $17 million over budget.

In addition, he notified the general public, via the town’s YouTube channel, council was united in its decision to have its legal counsel proceed with a claim of fraud, fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of good faith pertaining to the ongoing Ma-te-Way third-party review.

Mayor Sidney was referring to a report presented on March 21, a day that included closed and open council meetings that culminated with close to 30 people in attendance for the open council meeting when The Mateway Third Party Review: Draft Final Report was released to the public.

The report concluded there was a lack of accountability and transparency with the project, a failure to comply with the procedural bylaw, a lack of governance/oversight, "inadequate" financial and project reporting, a toxic work environment, and unrealistic budgets. The report also stated there is "ample evidence that suggests" the Parks and Recreation Department engaged in sole/direct source contracts and "questionable tendering incentive practices.”

As head of council, he is responsible for chairing council meetings and he delivered the somber message from the mayor’s chair.

With the town logo serving as a backdrop, he said both the police and a forensic investigator were about to undertake an investigation of former staff members and anyone else linked with the Ma-te-Way project that may have acted illegally in the course of their duties.

For Mayor Sidney, the announcement added to the list of embarrassing episodes he and council have dealt with since they took the Oath of Office shortly after the October 2022 municipal elections. Unfortunately, the launch of a potential criminal investigation has plunged the town into its worst financial scandal since its incorporation in 1858.

Council not only has to deal with whatever may come of the probe, but they face a much tougher challenge over the remainder of their time in office. They have 18 months to restore trust between the town’s residents, council and staff.

Lack of Trust

When the mayor delivered the historic announcement, the public gallery inside the newly renovated council chambers was empty.

Since WCSC Consulting delivered an interim report on December 19, there were times it was standing-room only with more than 25 visitors returning each meeting to find out more about the Ma-te-Way scandal.

During a February council meeting, members of the public were invited to address council to express their disappointment and anger over the handling of the project. Among those who addressed council was Sandi Heins, a former member of council who served as mayor (1998-2010) and oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art water filtration plant.

She grilled council on the shortcomings of managerial oversight and stated, “the building of the sewage treatment plant had a cost of $30 million and a grant of $17 million; it came in within budget and on time in the fall of 2009.”

During that meeting Ms. Heins was one of about 25 residents who filled the chairs and all of them let council know exactly how they felt.

For any of the councillors sitting around the table, it was impossible to avoid the mistrust, anger and disappointment expressed by those in attendance and their demand for accountability. Local resident and two-time candidate for a federal election, David Ainsworth, summed up the feeling felt throughout the town when he demanded any individual found to have misused taxpayer’s money must be held accountable, and that included bringing criminal charges against those individuals.

He also called on Mayor Sidney to resign immediately and allow “the town to heal and begin the process of restoring trust between the town and its residents.”

A majority of the current council and several residents have expressed a general consensus to hold anyone accountable for the $17 million cost over-run. It is an amount the town is solely responsible for and will likely be financed through a 30-year debenture plan.

When the debt is paid, it will have included an additional $15 million, the estimated interest costs, resulting in the actual total for the expansion could go as high as $53 million.

That is bad news for those who live in Renfrew as most of that amount will be raised through years of continual tax increases.

However, the elephant in the room is whether or not this council is able to work through their differences which have been on public display for several months.

Council Divided

Although the motions calling on the involvement of the OPP and direction to staff to work with its legal counsel to pursue civil litigation options passed with unanimous consent, it will be interesting to see if it has any effect on the actions of the seven-member council.

Since the third-party review was launched last summer, it has resulted in a divide among council and that tension has been evident each time they meet for bi-weekly meetings.

For better or worse, those differences are well known throughout the town based on the large crowds showing up each time an update on the project is on the agenda. Combined with the dramatic rise of council meeting viewership on the town’s YouTube channel, this council is under the microscope.

On March 14 and March 28, 2023, the viewership for council meetings were 79 and 173, respectfully. Fast forward one year and the recent March 21 and March 26 meetings recorded close to 2,000 views each.

There is a clear divide between the five new councillors sworn in after the October 2022 election (Jason Legris, John McDonald, Andrew Dick, Kyle Cybulski and Clint McWhirter) and the two returning members (Mayor Sidney and Reeve Peter Emon) who were both members of the two previous councils, including the 2018-2024 council that green-lit the project.

It is not just residents like Mr. Ainsworth who have called on Mayor Sidney to resign over his handling of the Ma-te-Way file.

On two separate occasions (January 31 and March 26) Councillors McDonald and Cybulski introduced Notices of Motion demanding the mayor resign in order to allow the town to heal and begin the restoration of trust between residents and town staff and council.

Councillors and others point to Mayor Sidney’s eight-year tenure as chair of the town’s recreation committee (2014-2022) and his role of spokesperson and supporter of an addition to the recreation complex.

They also referenced his role as one of three members (along with former Mayor Don Eady, current Reeve Emon) of the short-lived Ma-te-Way Ad Hoc Committee. It was formed around the time the town received close to $9 million in grant money from the federal and provincial governments. It was earmarked for the construction at Ma-te-Way.

Although it is common for this type of committee to stay active during the construction phase of a major project in order to provide oversight for council, it was disbanded prior to construction taking place.

Both resignation motions introduced by the two councillors passed with a majority of council voting in favour and they were symbolic of council’s lack of confidence in Mayor Sidney’s role as head of council. However, the motions have no legal basis forcing the mayor to resign. The legislative roles and responsibilities of the mayor and other elected officials are outlined in the Municipal Act and a mayor cannot be forced to resign under these circumstances.

Recently, Coun. McDonald introduced two motions at the March 26 council meeting that called for the removal of both Mayor Sidney and Reeve Emon from all committees, working groups, and external boards, effective immediately. He cited Mayor Sidney’s previous membership on the recreation and ad-hoc committees and Reeve Emon’s role as head of the Human Resources committee as justification for their removal.

Both motions passed by a vote of 5-1. The town’s new website includes a profile of each member of council and their assignments. Mayor Sidney’s profile states, ‘The Mayor presides over council meetings and is also a member of the Renfrew & Area Health Services Village Inc.’ Reeve Emon’s profile states: ‘Warden for Renfrew County.’

By contrast, Coun. McDonald’s profile states, ‘Is a member of the following Advisory Committees, Working Groups and Internal Teams: Bonnechere River Park and Trail Working Group; Economic Development Advisory Committee; Is a member of the following Boards, Agencies and Other Entities: Renfrew & Area Chamber of Commerce; Renfrew Business Improvement Area (BIA).’

New Councillor Expresses Frustration

During the April 9 council meeting, CAO Robert Tremblay delivered a report on the completion of renovations to the town hall. It was another embarrassing report containing many irregularities and numerous examples of a lack of managerial oversight and errors resulting in a multi-year delay and the original 2018 budget of $200,000 was a far cry from the 2024 final amount of $2,012,889.36 due to change orders. (See Story on Page A?)

During his presentation, it was revealed a sole source contract was awarded in 2022 to a local business owned by a member of Renfrew council. When Coun. Dick addressed the issue, he was outraged a member of the previous council would receive payment for business services.

He went on to state that “if we were not here to question this and if this were four or eight years ago, I am sure this would just slide under the table…” His reference to previous council prompted Reeve Emon to address Coun. Dick and state, “I would encourage my friend to remove his comment about sliding it under the table.”

Veteran Councilors Urge Caution

By the end of the regular meeting, Coun. Dick did not ask for a retraction of his comments and that led to Reeve Emon announcing he would be bringing forward a Notice of Motion at the April 23 meeting. His motion read, “That council consider and approve sanctions for a current member of council whose actions have or will impact negatively the image of the town of Renfrew.”

When Coun. McDonald first called for the mayor to resign on January 31, Reeve Emon voted against that and any form of sanctions brought forward by a member of council that is directed toward a fellow sitting member. He cautioned that passing a motion demanding a resignation or other forms of punitive measure could open the door to additional steps being taken against any other member and it could lead to a dysfunctional council.

When asked to resign on separate occasions, Mayor Sidney cautioned council not to be too quick to pass judgment as the final report was not completed and there may be others who need to be held accountable for worse infractions. He also cautioned the rookie councillors to allow time for all the information to be reviewed before making any rash decisions that could jeopardize the ability of council to get things done.

It will take several months for the internal audit and external criminal probe to be completed and Reeve Emon is hopeful the five councillors consider the opinions of both he and Mayor Sidney when deciding if any potential disciplinary action is taken.

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader