Resignation of three town councillors latest shock to small Quebec town

MONTREAL — What began as a disagreement over an alcohol expense by a library volunteer in Ste-Pétronille, Que., has escalated into a political crisis that has upended the small village east of Quebec City and shaken its governing body.

The resignation this week of three members of the Ste-Pétronille town council is the latest turn in the heated months-long conflict between residents and elected officials that has prompted an investigation by provincial authorities and led the municipality this winter to send threatening legal notices to one-tenth of its population.

Mayor Jean Côté didn’t specify the reasons for the departures of councillors Claude Archambault, Alain Laroche and Lyne Gosselin when he announced their resignations at a town council meeting on Tuesday, but the news elicited cheers from members of the audience at Ste-Pétronille town hall.

“Odd,” a visibly frustrated Côté said in response. “It’s not easy to be a municipal elected official,” he remarked in a short speech commending his former colleagues. “We can understand their decision.”

The resignations leave just four remaining council members.

Côté opened the council meeting on Tuesday by outlining the series of events that have led tensions to boil in the usually sleepy town. It all started last summer, he said, when a library volunteer’s request to be reimbursed for alcohol purchased at an after-work event was refused.

“The Ste-Pétronille town council has been suffering reprisals since August from the library’s former volunteers, who never accepted the council’s simple request not to incur expenses on behalf of the council without its authorization,” he said.

Soon after the library episode, a group of residents began to scrutinize the town’s manager, Nathalie Paquet, and her departure from a previous job in the municipality of Val-des-Lacs. In December, they launched a petition asking Ste-Pétronille to investigate her hiring, citing an alleged letter from the mayor of Val-des-Lacs, obtained through an access-to-information request, that they said made the decision “incomprehensible.”

In response to the petition, at least 97 people in Ste-Pétronille — whose 2021 population was just over 1,000 people — received legal letters on behalf of the town that demanded recipients stop “infringing on (Paquet’s) private life and reputation.” The local paper, Autour de l’Île, also received a notice.

Public outcry ensued, and the municipality in January called on Quebec’s Municipal Affairs Department to examine Paquet’s hiring, though Côté said in a statement at the time that the town remained “convinced that the hiring process for our town manager, whose integrity is being unfairly attacked, was conducted rigorously and diligently.”

Then in March, residents began circulating another petition that called on elected officials to “adopt an appropriate attitude” toward citizens, allow a “freedom of exchange” in council meetings and commit to “a proper use of public funds, contrary to the undertaking of lawyers’ fees to muzzle citizens and the local newspaper,” among other requests.

That petition garnered 512 signatures, said François Martin, the signatory who introduced the appeal to the town council on Tuesday. In an interview, he said he withheld everyone’s signature but his own to prevent retaliation by the municipality.

At the town hall meeting, Côté responded to the petition item by item, but told Martin the council had already enacted measures that fulfil its demands. 

“We’re very, very disappointed,” Martin said Friday. “But I also can’t understand how the mayor could think people would sign a petition asking for changes … if those changes weren’t necessary.” 

Côté and Martin agreed on one point at the council meeting: they both characterized the situation in the village as “worrying.”

They’re not alone. In a statement Friday, Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest said she is “preoccupied” by the resignation of the three Ste-Pétronille councillors. 

“It’s not normal that it should come to this,” she said. “Our elected municipal officials must be able to carry out their essential mandate in a healthy climate. It’s also vital for municipalities to listen to the concerns of their citizens.”

In an interview Friday, Côté said the departure of his colleagues was part of what he called an “alarming” wave of resignations by Quebec municipal officials amid increasingly challenging work conditions. More than 700 of Quebec’s 8,000 local politicians have left their posts since the last municipal election in 2021.

An investigation by Quebec’s municipal commission into the hiring of Paquet is ongoing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2024.

Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press