Renfrew mayor refuses to resign

Renfrew – No.

For the second time in less than two months, Mayor Tom Sidney said ‘no’ after a majority of his fellow Renfrew council members passed a motion demanding his immediate resignation.

Last Tuesday, by a 5-1 vote, council passed a symbolic motion that was quite clear in outlining the reasons for their displeasure over his role in the Ma-te-Way expansion project, noting he had lost all confidence in his ability to lead council for the remainder of his term of office.

So far in 2024, a majority of council voted on two separate occasions to pass motions of non-confidence in his leadership.

Last week, five of the seven-person council voted in favour of a second motion demanding he relinquish his duties because of his lack of any action to alert the public of the slow-moving train wreck that was the Ma-te-Way expansion project. Mayor Sidney did not vote and Reeve Peter Emon voted against the motion.

Some council members took direct aim at his role during the eight years (2014-2022) he was chair of the town’s parks and recreation committee, an influential committee that was instrumental in the lead up to the construction of the 96,000 sq. ft. expansion of the Ma-te-Way Activity Centre.

The two motions, along with two other disciplinary motions that were introduced later in the meeting, stem from a report detailing the findings of the interim third-party review that investigated the expansion project.

The Ma-Te-Way Third Party Review: Draft Final Report was completed by WCSC Consulting and released on March 21. It exposed mismanagement of the recreation facility expansion project that was delayed by two years and had costs increase from $18 million for a 49,500-square-foot building to an estimated $37 million for a 96,000-square-foot expansion.

Prior to discussion on the motion, Mayor Sidney announced he would be vacating the chair based on advice from the town’s Integrity Commissioner. The mayor informed those in attendance he would exit council chambers and have Reeve Peter Emon assume the role of chair during debate on the motion demanding his resignation.

The mayor also announced he intended to release an official statement the next morning (March 27), as more than 30 residents who attended the meeting were hanging on every word he said.

As he exited chambers and returned to his office, he left many in both the onsite audience and those watching the meeting on YouTube speculating on whether or not he would tender his resignation the next day. He still has 30 months remaining on his term of council prior to the October 2026 municipal elections.

Motion Introduced

Ironically, rookie Councilor Kyle Cybulski, one of five new council members elected in the 2022 municipal election and the councillor who introduced last week’s motion, voted with Mayor Sidney and Reeve Emon against an earlier no-confidence motion at the January 30 meeting.

At that time, he said the decision to vote with the two veteran councillors “was not an endorsement of Mayor Sidney.” He went on to explain that “I want to wait until the final report is issued in case there are others who need to be held accountable.”

During the public meeting, John Skorobohacz, one of the WCSC auditors involved with the review, was asked if there was one or more individuals who must be held accountable for the multiple failures that occurred during this project. He said the auditors concluded the previous seven-member council failed in their ability to follow through with due diligence in the oversight of the project, and therefore must assume some of the blame.

More importantly, the auditors did not specifically single out any member of the previous council, including now-Mayor Sidney and Reeve Emon, as the main parties responsible for the overall financial disaster.

Despite the findings of the auditors that all members of the previous council must shoulder some of the blame, Coun. Cybulski’s motion and supporting statement took direct aim at Mayor Sidney. He stated the mayor failed in his responsibility for oversight of the project. He said as a member of the three-person Ma-te-Way ad-hoc committee, a committee that was formed to provide oversight and direction of the project, he failed in his role.

Coun. Cybulski also made reference to the January non-confidence motion when he cited Mayor Sidney’s lack of leadership in November 2022. He said the mayor’s failure to immediately notify the newly sworn in council of the Ma-te-Way financial debacle and to involve all new members in the process to take accounting of the project was a failure of leadership.

He informed council and all those in attendance his prepared statement was written with the understanding Mayor Sidney would be present in chambers and his sudden exit from the debate was disappointing.

He said he sent an email to Mayor Sidney on March 29 before the agenda was finalized with his Notice of Motion demanding his resignation, included an invitation for him to resign prior to the public meeting.

He suggested it would save the mayor the humiliation of a majority of council admonishing him in a very public forum for his failure to show leadership on this issue. He said stepping down quietly and privately would avoid a divisive public airing of a list of failures he planned to include within his motion.

“Thursday, March 21 for me held the information I was waiting for and Thursday, March 21 was eye-opening, disturbing, gut-wrenching, painful, embarrassing and most of all unacceptable,” he said. “Just for the record, all previous council members are responsible for what happened at Ma-te-Way. The members of council neglected their duties of governance for the town of Renfrew taxpayers.”

He went on to say, “they all should be ashamed of themselves for this failure.”

Despite his condemnation of all members of the previous council, Coun. Cybulski saved his harshest criticism for the mayor.

“You are the weak link that allowed this to happen,” he said. “We were told an exceedingly long list of items that the previous director had done over his previous 11 years as director. You did not pay attention during the 12 hours of meetings on Thursday. They said your name and you were blamed. You had the opportunity to do the right thing, and you did not. It appears you never once tried to do the right thing.”

He concluded by pulling no punches.

“Tom Sidney, you have failed the town of Renfrew as a councillor, as the chair of the rec committee … as a member of the Ma-te-Way ad hoc advisory committee and now as mayor of the town of Renfrew,” he said. “You need to step down. You owe the town, so the town can heal.”

Councillors Highly Critical of Mayor

Councillors Andrew Dick, John MacDonald and Jason Legris all read from prepared statements assigning blame to Mayor Sidney and Councillor Clint McWhirter summarized their intent to support the motion.

He made references to his January 30 Notice of Motion citing a perceived lack of leadership and challenged him on his moral authority moving forward.

“The reality is Mayor Tom Sidney has lost the moral authority to lead this town and the mayor should step down to allow this town to properly heal and move forward,” he said while reading his statement.

He also criticized the mayor for failing to address the issue when the report was submitted to council throughout the 12 hours the meetings took place with a large viewing audience and crowded chambers.

“Last Thursday the mayor had a five and a half-hour opportunity in the open session to offer a credible explanation of what happened at Ma-te-Way. He didn’t. During this time, he could have offered an apology to the people of Renfrew. He didn’t.”

Coun. Legris echoed some of Coun. McDonald’s harsh criticisms, and his were more of a personal observation.

“It didn’t take me long to figure out what you (Mayor Sidney) are all about and you are all about yourself and what’s best for you,” he said. “You have never put the Town of Renfrew or its residents first that I have seen. You tried to separate council from the very start. I have lost faith, trust and respect in you.”

At one point in his statement, Coun. Legris hinted both the mayor and former Recreation Director Kevin Hill may have benefitted financially from the $17 million overage and other unaccounted costs.

“You let policies be broken and you allowed by-laws not to be followed. You let a director cash in on the Town of Renfrew. It makes me wonder how much more involvement you had.”

This Is Not A Witch-hunt

Coun. Dick began his statement by reminding everyone the motion he will be voting on is not a reflection of Mayor Sidney’s love of Renfrew or his commitment to help the town flourish. He said his vote was based entirely on the mountain of evidence the auditors pulled together on all facets of the Ma-te-Way expansion.

“For eight years Mayor Sidney was the chair of the recreation committee and he was the former director’s boss and direct supervisor,” he said. “Mayor Sidney was voted into this position and he is paid a salary by the shareholders and they are the taxpayers of this town. Mayor Sidney was tasked to ask the tough questions at these meetings and to ensure that minutes were taken at these meetings and to report back to council. This is what he is paid to do. He is paid to represent you, the taxpayers.

“I want to make it clear that this is not a witch-hunt despite what some in the town are saying. Mayor Sidney was chair of the rec committee and a member of the ad-hoc committee and a councillor. This happened on his watch. It was his responsibility to represent the taxpayers of this town.”

Should Never Sit On Council Again

Coun. McWhirter, who served two terms on council for seven years until 2014 and was re-elected in 2022 after an eight-year absence, summarized the need to pass the motion and he credited his fellow four new councillors for not backing down but he had harsh words for all members of the previous council and he didn’t pull any punches.

“I am very impressed with these four new councillors,” he said. “They show up and they do their homework and they are passionate about their commitment to the Town of Renfrew. There is no doubt the previous council lacked in their due diligence and they all should be hanging their head right now over what happened. Everybody who was on that council should never hold elected office again for what they have done in the past.”

Reeve Emon made an effort to stop the final result by voting against the motion, but his efforts were in vain as the motion passed easily by 5-1. Only six of the potential seven votes were cast as Mayor Sidney excused himself from discussion and voting.

When the motion was passed, Coun. McDonald introduced his Notice of Motion to remove Mayor Sidney from his committee and board appointments.

Just before the vote was taken, Coun. Dick asked CAO Robert Tremblay to explain how the Municipal Act interprets a vote to remove a mayor from his committee and board assignments.

He said under the Municipal Act, council does not have the authority to remove another sitting member by voting through the passage of a motion calling on the mayor to resign. In terms of committee assignments, he does have the ability to sit on external committees.

“Similar to the non-confidence motion that was passed in January, this is a way for members of council to express their position,” he said. “The duties of the mayor are listed so that means representing council at various events and chairing council meetings. He will also remain on the staff engagement team and the Renfrew Public Library Board should this motion pass.”

Similar to the motion demanding the mayor resign, the motion passed 5-1 with only Reeve Emon voting against it while Mayor Sidney was still absent from chambers on the advice of the Integrity Commissioner.

Reeve Emon’s Role Is Reduced

One of the questions that is often asked in the community over the last few months is why Reeve Emon was not being subjected to the same level of criticism as Mayor Sidney.

That question was answered towards the end of last week’s meeting when Coun. McDonald introduced his second Notice of Motion that was similar to his earlier motion that called for the removal of Reeve Emon from Renfrew committee assignments.

Similar to Mayor Sidney, Reeve Emon excused himself from chambers.

Mayor Sidney returned to chambers to resume his role of chair of council and oversaw a recorded 5-1 vote approving the motion to remove Reeve Emon from committee assignments.

The vote was the last agenda item and council ended just before 7:30 p.m. Both Mayor Sidney and Reeve Emon indicated they would not comment on their respective removal from committee assignments that evening.

Mayor Refuses To Step Down

True to his word, the mayor released a written statement the next morning and his decision not to step down shocked many who attended the meeting and several of the 1,700 viewers who watched it through the town’s YouTube channel. However, for the first time since the process began, he acknowledged some of his own personal failures and the failures of his fellow colleagues who sat around the council table.

“I want to apologize to the residents of Renfrew that the Ma-te-Way project was not completed in a manner which was financially acceptable to me and our community,” the statement began. “The third-party review showed the need to request good and sound information in all aspects of the town. The Ma-te-Way project has shown we did not seek it hard enough and I am sorry for that.”

He said the current councillors have the right, and it is expected as part of their role as protector of taxpayer’s rights to demand accountability from whoever is referenced in the report for any intended or unintended failures of their duties. However, his statement said the current councillors must be required to accurately assess the findings when publicly demanding resignations from all those who failed in their duties, including staff members.

“Council has dismissed the many reasons the third-party review highlighted as contributing factors. Instead, they focused their attention on only two individuals,” he wrote. “This council and past councils have struggled with projects as there was not an established process or template which detailed the progress and completion of projects. The third-party review combined with the other service reviews have highlighted long suspected changes and additions needed in our finance department.”

Similar to CAO Tremblay’s explanation of what a council can and cannot do under the Municipal Act, his statement said it is very clear in the roles and responsibilities of a councillor. He said the Act specifically states a councillor is not permitted to direct staff and Renfrew’s former senior management model made it difficult as they all shared chief administrative officer (CAO) responsibilities and there was no one person in-charge.

“We have made some great new changes starting in the last term of council with the creation of the CAO model,” he wrote. “We have also created and updated many policies and have made some significant changes to the corporation and he believes we have aligned the town in a positive forward direction.”

Mayor Sidney was very somber when he summed up his feelings towards his fellow council members who have consistently assigned blame towards him in a public forum while denouncing his role in the Ma-te-Way expansion.

“I am disappointed with the actions of council.”

It is clear with his commitment to remain on council and retain his duty as chair of future council meetings, it will be difficult for a spirit of cooperation to emerge with such a divided council. The voting record over the last year for other controversial matters other than Ma-te-Way has usually resulted in a similar pattern.

Mayor Sidney and Reeve Emon have consistently been united in voting for what can best be described as progressive or controversial issues while Councillors McDonald and Legris have been consistent in their opposition to contentious matters such as the placement of the PRIDE flag and the placement of cultural murals on town property, including Low Square.

Most of these voting issues were accompanied by a large presence of spectators attending council chambers and most of the votes were decided with a very slim majority of 4-3 on both sides of the table.

Councillors Dick and McWhirter, and Councillor Cybulski, have sided with both of the consistent voting blocks on these issues and other motions restricting the duties and powers of individual members or other factors dealing with municipal governance

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader