At the MRC Pontiac council of mayors meeting on April 20, there was a heated discussion regarding $30,000 which had been granted to the Residence Meilleur, a seniors home in Chapeau. The discussion dates back to January 2016 when the seniors home was approved for grant funding through the Territory Development Fund (FDT). It came out when the program was being reviewed that the residence had received $30,000 more than had been officially approved by resolution.
In their meeting on March 18, 2020, the former council passed a resolution that the MRC Pontiac be repaid the $30,000, through a long-term interest-free loan. The former council’s vote was split evenly on the resolution and Warden Jane Toller exercised her right to break the tie in favour of repayment.
It should be noted that the meeting took place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and press were told just hours before it started that they wouldn’t be able to observe, with no explaination offered.
At the April 20 meeting, a resolution was presented by Chichester Mayor Donald Gagnon, who also sits on the board of directors for the Residence Meilleur, to rescind the previous resolution.
Before the council could vote on Gagnon’s resolution, pro-warden and Mansfield-et-Pontefract Mayor Sandra Armstrong put forward a resolution to defer the decision so they could consult a lawyer on the subject. She said that she had sought legal counsel and thought there were “red flags” but didn’t go into specifics.
Several mayors questioned why the resolution was added to the agenda last-minute, and also questioned why it was voted on prior to the original resolution put forward by Gagnon. Armstrong’s resolution was voted down by a majority, with Armstrong as well as Karen Kelly (Thorne), Lynn Cameron (Portage-du-Fort), Carl Mayer (Alleyn-et-Cawood), Christine Francœur (Fort-Coulonge) and Jean-Louis Corriveau (Ile-du-Grand-Calumet) voting in favour.
Following the vote, there was a lengthy discussion regarding the wording of Gagnon’s resolution, which originally stated that the Residence Meilleur had been granted $30,000 and $150,000. Toller argued that it should only reflect official MRC resolutions, which were for $30,000, $60,000 and $60,000, totaling $150,000. She was backed up by data presented by current Economic Development Director Cyndy Phillips.
Toller acknowledged that an MRC employee had mistakenly told former L’Isle-aux-Allumettes Mayor Winston Sunstrum (who also sits on the Residence Meilleur board), that they had been approved for the extra $30,000. She added that at the time, the MRC was without an economic development director following the resignation of Emilie Chazelas in May 2018. Toller also stated that they had attempted to recover the money through their insurance, but their request was declined.
Gagnon took issue with the way Toller had framed the issue in an interview she did for local newspaper The Equity (Wednesday, April 20 edition, front page), where she is quoted stating: “They asked for $150,000, got $180,000, said nothing about it, got caught, was asked to repay, did nothing about it, then convinced new mayors to rescind the repayment.” Toller initially claimed she hadn’t used the word “caught” but Litchfield Mayor Colleen Larivière read the quote out loud in its entirety. She called it atrocious and Gagnon asked that Toller apologize to the board and the mayors involved.
Larivière pointed out that the board had requested a meeting with MRC council on March 10, 2020, a week prior to the vote where they were ordered to repay. The board of Residence Meilleur has provided CHIP 101.9 with a copy of the letter, as well as the correspondence between Sunstrum and the MRC employee in 2018.
L’Isle-aux-Allumettes Mayor Corey Spence moved an amendment to adjust the figures in Gagnon’s original resolution to match those in official MRC resolutions. Campbell’s Bay Mayor Maurice Beauregard moved an amendment to add that the $30,000 be repaid through the MRC’s surplus. Both amendments passed by majority decision.
Council voted by majority to pass Gagnon’s amended resolution, with Mayors Armstrong, Francœur and Cameron voting against.
The overall discussion on the topic lasted roughly an hour, and was at times heated. Many mayors had questions and stated that they hadn’t been given enough documentation and information prior to the meeting.
The full live stream of the meeting can be viewed below (discussion of Residence Meilleur starts at approximately 1:37:30 and lasts until 2:34):
CHIP 101.9 invited Warden Toller to our studio to discuss how the meeting went. She said that she thought it was one of the “best meetings” the council has had, and added that it would be good practice to have more discussions in public meetings.
When asked if she thought the members of the Residence Meilleur board acted in bad faith, since they tried to confirm the $30,000 payment with the staff member, Toller said that Sunstrum should have taken the issue to the council instead of just checking with an MRC clerk. She didn’t use his name, simply referring to him as “the mayor concerned”.
When pressed several times on why the council seemed to not be on the same page when it came to basic facts about the situation, despite discussing it in previous meetings, Toller abruptly interjected that she disagreed and said she likes to “keep things positive and constructive”.
Members of the residence’s board issued a press release on April 25, expressing disagreement with statements that Toller made The Equity, explaining the steps that they took throughout the process.
Sunstrum spoke to CHIP 101.9 following the meeting and he disagreed with Toller’s assertion that he and the other mayors sitting on the board had a conflict of interest, since the residence is a non-profit and they don’t stand to gain financially.
The full follow-up interview with Toller is available here.