Another mayor bites the dust in scandal-plagued Quebec

LAVAL, Que. – In one memorable, scandal-plagued week, no less than one-quarter of Quebecers have seen their mayor resign under a cloud of suspicion.

The head of the province’s third-largest city, Laval, announced his resignation Friday, just a few days after his Montreal counterpart tiptoed down the same political plank.

The cause: a public mutiny over corruption allegations.

It was a steep fall for Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval, who had been so electorally dominant over the course of a 23-year mayoral career that his critics would call him, “The Monarch.”

In a solemn resignation announcement, Vaillancourt lamented the current climate of suspicion in Quebec. He has in the past loudly protested his innocence and threatened to sue those who accused him of corruption. But on Friday, he protested less loudly.

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He simply suggested that he had been hard done by.

“We are going through a very difficult, very painful moment as a society,” Vaillancourt told reporters.

“All elected people, at all levels, are accused of all sorts of wrongdoing. We’re hearing all sorts of things, we’re facing allegations that without being proven can irreversibly change someone’s reputation… I am one of these people, and I’m deeply hurt.”

He suggested quitting was his only option: “Whatever I say or do… the damage (to my reputation) is done.”

As he resigned, a protester outside city hall held up an anti-Vaillancourt sign while wearing mock $100 bills stuck to his jacket.

He was guarded by more than a dozen law-enforcement officers because of what the police said were threats to his personal safety.

During his succinct farewell address, the mayor touted his record in overseeing the development of a once-sleepy farming community into a bustling and fast-growing municipality.

He said he had always worked for Laval residents. Vaillancourt thanked journalists for their coverage during his career, then turned around and walked away without taking any questions.

Vaillancourt, 72, had been on sick leave since Oct. 24.

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The provincial government saluted his decision Friday, saying it was time for residents to look to the future. A provincial opposition party, the Coalition, went further: it urged the government to send an independent observer into Laval to keep an eye on things, given that Vaillancourt’s party dominates council since it won every seat in the last election.

Quebec’s anti-corruption unit has closed in on Laval in recent weeks, raiding numerous engineering firms and businesses in addition to Vaillancourt’s own home, condo, offices and his bank safety-deposit boxes.

Vaillancourt’s name has also been mentioned in ongoing testimony before Quebec’s Charbonneau inquiry into corruption.

Former construction boss Lino Zambito testified that Vaillancourt received a kickback on contracts handed out in Laval. Vaillancourt has denied those allegations, as he has denied past allegations that he offered bribes to people involved in provincial politics.

Unlike Vaillancourt, the former Montreal mayor has never been accused of personally pocketing money.

Allegations that Gerald Tremblay turned a blind eye to illicit financing of his municipal party prompted the Montreal mayor to resign this week. Tremblay denied that accusation, but said he was quitting for the good of the city.

Montreal still faces a leadership crisis, following his departure.

The city’s No. 2 dramatically announced his own resignation Friday, in a late-day news conference where he described frustrations with his colleagues.

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Michael Applebaum said he was leaving not because he was passed over as a candidate for interim mayor, but because of deep differences with the rest of the city’s executive body.

He said he opposed the committee’s plan to push ahead with Tremblay’s 3.3 per cent hike on property taxes because he said Montrealers deserved, with all the wasteful and corruption-heavy spending, to see their burden lightened.

“This budget no longer respects taxpayers who feel ripped off,” Applebaum told reporters, adding that any tax hike above 2.2 per cent, or roughly the usual rate of inflation, would be unreasonable.

“This budget simply isn’t being accepted (by residents).”

He then took one more parting shot at his former colleagues: he showed reporters a document that suggested Montrealers paid 30 to 40 per cent more for infrastructure than other municipalities.

He said he could let journalists see it, but could not hand it out – because the executive committee had voted to delay its release to the opposition party that requested it.

And he called that decision infuriating.

“This report I’m holding in my hands dates back to… 2004,” Applebaum said, holding up the document for the assembled cameras.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said of the decision to delay its release. “I work for (Montrealers). I can no longer work for this executive committee.”

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The city must choose a temporary replacement for Tremblay by next week.

In Montreal and in Laval, there can be no snap municipal election under provincial law unless a mayor quits more than a year before the next scheduled vote. The next round of municipal elections will be held in Quebec next November.

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