Councillor and staff on the defensive over conflict allegations
The West Nipissing Council meeting of September 20th was abruptly shut down, without a motion to adjourn, when a dispute got out of hand and decorum was lost amid a shouting match. The dispute revolved around regular disbursements received by the volunteer board of the River Valley landfill (RVWM – River Valley Waste Management) to pay their gate attendant and other expenses, and that Coun. Rolly Larabie had been in receipt of those funds for the agency, as he was the signatory. The issue was raised by Coun. Denis Senecal “as a matter of transparency”, seeking to know who was on the board, as well as questioning the municipal accounting practices in relation to the disbursements.
Senecal had filed a complaint in 2020 with the Integrity Commissioner (IC), alleging Larabie was in conflict of interest as a sitting councillor receiving payments from the town, however the IC ruled that there was no conflict of interest or wrongdoing, though it could be perceived that way. He recommended that Larabie simply recuse himself from future deliberation on these disbursements, though these specific payments did not come up in deliberations as they were part of the overall consolidated landfill budget.
The complaint was also raised on social media, on a page administered by Mayor Joanne Savage and Coun. Lise Senecal, leading to accusatory comments about corruption on one hand, and counteraccusations that the entire issue was a red herring meant to undermine Coun. Larabie’s reputation during the municipal election campaign. Larabie is seeking re-election to represent Ward 6, and himself characterized the complaints as “a witch hunt” against him.
Larabie, as Chair of Environmental Services (ES), chaired the ES committee portion of the meeting where the item was put on the agenda by the mayor. He handed the question off to CAO Jay Barbeau, who responded with a memorandum addressing Senecal’s concern with details of community landfill governance, along with commentary on how the administration was not to be drawn into politically motivated disputes. “I’m confused as to what I’m supposed to present on – don’t know what the issue is – with respect to governance of landfills in outlying areas,” he told council. As to the question of who sits on the River Valley board, he insisted this was “not relevant to procurement” and that staff was only interested in ensuring they received the services they were paying for at every landfill site, not just River Valley.
Barbeau proceeded with a historical explanation of the community landfills operated by volunteer boards, a remnant of amalgamation in 1999, noting that over the past 22 years the volunteer management of those four landfills of Lavigne, River Valley, Muskosung and Kipling have saved the municipality around $1.2 million compared to what it would have cost for the town to run them itself. Upon amalgamation, it was decided to allow these communities to continue managing their own landfills, because “It was cheaper… the council of the day continued to operate that way.” Currently the administration is looking at switching operations to the municipality in response to Ministry of the Environment considerations, but Barbeau stressed that will be much more costly.
Historically the landfills presented annual itemized budget requests, those requests were examined by staff, adjustments made, and presented to council in consolidated form for general budget approval. “Council would approve, we would provide them with all of their money at once… Somebody decided interim payments, quarterly or trimesterally… In the case of River Valley $5K is an interim payment for services provided at the landfill,” Barbeau explained, adding there were three payments totaling around $15,000. Larabie later expanded on the explanation, saying that as signatory, he received those payments on behalf of the volunteer board and used them to cover expenses, mainly to pay the gate attendant.
Barbeau made it a point to defend staff’s accounting practices as sound and professional, reacting to the inuendo found on social media relating to the matter. “There’s an implication we are hiding something,” he charged. “What are our accounting controls? We basically measure off what work is being done there… We have a landfill site manager who attends on a regular basis, knows and works with these corporations, assures money is spent accordingly… What was put before council was this insinuation, question, comment… how we manage our landfills, and that is the reply. There are checks and balances that we have, and council is well aware of… If we feel there are anomalies, or any nefarious acts, we would certainly be on it and catching it. There is no issue here, at any of our landfill sites, that there is any malfeasance.”
Municipal accountant and director of Corporate Services Alisa Craddock weighed in, “From an accounting control perspective we have received services for the funds we paid, and we have control over the services we have paid for… We wouldn’t be concerned with corporate structure unless we had a fraud. I want to take the discussion of fraud off the table because we have been receiving services for the funds we provide – there’s no concern of fraud here… It’s a little confusing what is trying to be achieved here… If it’s a question of procurement, council has never in recent years taken these sites out for an RFP process… If it’s a question of conflict of interest… that’s a question for the Integrity Commissioner… [who] has ruled on this and there is no conflict.”
Barbeau proceeded to comment that he has a “problem with slander,” and was visibly irritated. “We start having issues with respect to (…) the insinuation that professional staff, chartered accountants, CAs who audit us, volunteers who ensure that these landfill sites stay open, these insinuations that undermine them, I tend to get my back up and – if you want to start playing that game you better be right because I’m not going to allow a member of council to impugn the reputation of the staff.”
At this point Coun. Lise Senecal called a point of order on the basis that the comments were off topic, but chair Larabie denied the point of order and asked Barbeau to proceed. Coun. Denis Senecal immediately called a similar point of order and told the CAO he “should quit your job and look for a joking job.” Larabie told D. Senecal to “keep it professional” and overruled the point of order. There was a verbal altercation between the two and the chair told Coun. Senecal to vacate his seat, to which Senecal responded “No I won’t… I’m not leaving.” When Larabie asked if Senecal’s mike could be turned off, staff refused to do so based on precedent.