Sue Montgomery, the embattled mayor of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, offered to let a municipal employee collect his paycheque for two months if he stopped reporting for work, and proposed hiding the deal from the borough's human resources department.
Her effort to bypass HR was uncovered by a CBC Montreal investigation and it raises further ethical questions about a borough administration already fraught with internal turmoil as Montgomery does not have the authority to fire municipal employees, nor can she offer them severance pay for resigning.
The employee, Chad Walcott, did not accept Montgomery's offer but he did resign last Tuesday, after serving two years as a non-partisan support staffer for all elected officials.
In his resignation letter, he says he is quitting because of the toxic work environment and he accuses the borough mayor of trying to "buy back my contract rather than address my grievances."
Walcott also accuses the mayor of trying to get rid of her enemies, and says "it is obvious to me that I am the next person in her sights," the letter states.
CBC Montreal has viewed the offer Montgomery sent to Walcott's private Gmail account the afternoon of March 29. It was sent from her own private Gmail account.
"The way I see it is you stop working tomorrow but still get paid for two months. This agreement is just between you and me — not HR," Montgomery wrote.
Montgomery says she played by the rules
When asked about the offer to keep HR in the dark, Montgomery told CBC she followed "all appropriate procedures."
"I obtained and followed legal advice. Mr. Walcott was a member of my cabinet. As an employer, I have a duty of confidentiality," Montgomery said.
However, Walcott's work hours were subject to approval by human resources, according to a city document outlining his position with the city.
Walcott held an executive position known in French as cadre de la Ville de Montréal. Such roles do not come with compensation should the employee quit, but the employee may be entitled to two months' pay if they are fired without notice, the document says.
CBC Montreal asked Montgomery to clarify how excluding HR from severance negotiations is following "all appropriate procedures" and she declined to comment further.
Montgomery is currently facing roughly 20 charges of ethical breaches. Those charges are centred largely around Montgomery's alleged failure to prevent psychological harassment in the workplace.
Those hearings before the Commission municipale du Québec could lead to consequences ranging from a reprimand to a temporary suspension.
'Hostility reigns' in mayor's office, Walcott says
The email exchange began when Walcott wrote to Montgomery to finalize the agreed terms of his departure.
Walcott says he has spoken with his lawyer and wants to make sure they are on the same page before signing an agreement.
He mentions two different ways it could work: Either she gives him two months' notice of termination, or pays him an indemnity equal to what he would have made during that time.
This is important, he says, because he could be refused payment if "we tell HR my last day is May 26, but that I do not work during that time."
That's when Montgomery replied to say HR would be excluded from the arrangement and she encouraged Walcott to ask his lawyer to speak with her personal lawyer, Éric Olivier.
Walcott declined to be interviewed about the email exchange, but according to multiple sources, he submitted the entire email chain to the borough's HR department before he resigned.
Walcott went on sick leave prior to quitting his post, he says in his resignation letter.
When he returned from sick leave, he wrote, "I have noticed that the hostility that reigns in the mayor's office continues" and Montgomery's refusal to hear his grievances make it "impossible for me to return to a healthy and safe workspace."
The turmoil dates back to January 2020 when Montgomery refused to fire her chief of staff, Annalisa Harris, following a harassment investigation by the city's comptroller general into the workplace culture at the borough office.
It concluded two employees had suffered psychological harassment at the borough office and recommended that Harris have no more contact with borough employees.
Harris, unlike Walcott, is Montgomery's direct employee, and that is why the borough mayor was able to deny the city's request to fire her. The borough mayor has a budget for two employees who report directly to her.
Those include the chief of staff and one press attaché. Montgomery has complete control over their employment. All other employees of the borough report to HR.
While Montgomery has control over her chief of staff's employment, her refusal to fire her sparked a bitter battle between Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Montgomery both in the media and in the courts. Montgomery blamed sexism for the way her chief of staff was treated, and Harris has said she was actually the one who was harassed by senior staff.
A Quebec Superior Court judge sided with Montgomery in December, ruling the City of Montreal does not have the power to force her to fire her chief of staff, but the comptroller's report has led to hearings with the Commission municipale du Québec.
Unethical, but not illegal, employment lawyer says
Marianne Plamondon, a partner at Langlois law firm in Montreal, has specialized in labour and employment law for nearly two decades.
After CBC Montreal described Montgomery's offer, Plamondon said it doesn't sound illegal as these types of offers are often made to encourage well-protected employees to quit.
Sometimes union agreements or employment contracts make it difficult to fire an employee, so managers will offer severance pay for resigning, she said.
Not informing HR and allowing Walcott to collect pay for two months isn't necessarily illegal, but it is unethical, said Plamondon.
Regardless, independent Coun. Christian Arseneault said it's time to "start asking questions about the misuse of public funds" as it sounds like Montgomery was offering to inform HR of Walcott's resignation at the end of May even if he stopped working on March 30.
Tension leads to resignations, sick leave
Arseneault is among those who have been butting heads with Montgomery over working conditions at borough hall since she was kicked out of Projet Montréal in January 2020.
Since then, three employees have quit their jobs — including a press attaché — and the level of tension amid the council has been palpable at meetings.
Two out of the three employees took sick leave before resigning, Arseneault said, and there have been many other mental health leaves taken by senior staff.
"They all have one thing in common, and that's the person who they were working for," he said, calling it a sign of dysfunction.
Walcott's resignation was discussed during the borough council meeting Tuesday evening when Arseneault asked Montgomery when she will "clean things up in your office and guarantee your employees a respectful working environment."
Montgomery declined to comment during the meeting, saying it was an HR matter.
"Mr. Walcott chose to resign, and I wish him well in all his endeavours," Montgomery said.
From the council chamber to the courtroom
Montgomery has said elected officials and their political staff should be able to tell bureaucrats to do their job — and to question them — without being slapped with a harassment charge.
In 2020, she suspended the borough director multiple times for disagreements over issues like bike paths and re-purposing the old Empress Theatre.
"This is a city, as we all know, that has been ruled by male bureaucrats for decades," Montgomery said in February 2020.
"I think there's absolutely sexism going on here, and I think we're shaking the cage of the old boys' club, finally."
Regardless of the controversy, Montgomery, founded a new political party, Équipe Sue Montgomery, to run in Montreal's general election on Nov. 7.
According to Elections Quebec, Montgomery's chief of staff works as an officer for the new party.