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Woodstock, Ont. council to hold special, closed meeting in wake of charges against mayor

Woodstock, Ont., Mayor Trevor Birtch. City of Woodstock

Members of Woodstock’s city council will meet for a special, closed session on Wednesday, exactly one week after the city’s mayor was arrested and charged with assault and sexual assault in relation to allegations dating to last year.

The meeting, which will begin at 3:30 p.m. and be almost entirely in camera, will be held to receive “advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege,” according a short agenda for the session that was posted to the city’s website.

News of the council session comes a day after the Woodstock Police Services Board met for an emergency meeting on Monday to address the criminal charges against Mayor Trevor Birtch, 46, who is the board’s vice-chair and one of two council appointees.

Board chairperson Ken Whiteford confirmed to Global News on Tuesday that Birtch will not be attending future meetings of the board while an investigation by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission is carried out.

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The closed-door meeting, which lasted roughly 90 minutes, saw Birtch in attendance for a portion of the meeting to make his position clear, said Whiteford, who declined to say what Birtch told members.

“The board decided yesterday to contact (the Ontario Civilian Police Commission) and have them do an investigation of this matter,” Whiteford said in an interview with Global News on Tuesday.

“It’s all spelled out in Section 25 of the Police Services Act. During that investigation, the member under investigation cannot participate in meetings of the police services board.”

Read more: Woodstock, Ont. mayor charged with assault, sexual assault, court documents say

London police arrested Birtch on Feb. 2, charging him with one count of assault and two counts of sexual assault, including one of sexual assault with choking, all involving the same female complainant, court documents show.

Birtch is accused of sexually assaulting the complainant on Valentine’s Day 2021, and is accused of assaulting her sometime between June 1 and Sept. 30, according to the documents.

He is also accused of having sexually assaulted the complainant with choking sometime between Dec. 10 and 13.

Birtch was released on Feb. 2 by London police with an undertaking that included several conditions, including that he not communicate with the complainant and two other people, or be within 100 metres of where they live, go to school or work.

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He must also not possess any firearms or weapons, and was ordered to turn over all firearms in his possession to London police upon his release.

The allegations have not been proven in court, and Birtch is scheduled to make his first court appearance on May 2.

Birtch did not respond to requests for comment from Global News.

It’s not clear how long the investigation by the OCPC will take, which Whiteford notes would be looking at whether Birtch violated the code of conduct set out for members of police service boards in Ontario under the Police Services Act.

“They’re not looking into the allegations, that’s my understanding. They’re looking … solely at the question of the ability of the member to continue to serve his or her role as a member of the board,” he said.

The police services board has no authority to permanently remove Birtch from his position amid the ongoing legal proceedings, Whiteford said.

According to the Police Services Act, if, after a hearing, the OCPC concludes that a board member is guilty of misconduct, or is not performing, or is incapable of performing, their duties in a satisfactory manner, “it may remove or suspend the member.”

While Birtch is absent, the board will carry on with four members, Whiteford said.

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Read more: Charges laid after vehicle crashes through guardrail in downtown London, Ont.

Although Birtch will be absent from meetings of the police services board, it remains to be seen whether he will be absent from meetings of city council as well.

In an email Tuesday, David Creery, Woodstock’s chief administrative officer, said Birtch had not indicated to city officials whether he would attend future meetings, including Wednesday’s closed-door session.

It’s also not clear if Birtch plans to attend a meeting of Oxford County Council scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Birtch sits on the county council alongside two other Woodstock city councillors.

Under the province’s municipal act, there is no requirement for an elected official accused of a crime to step down from service.

Only when an official is sentenced to jail time does it disqualify them from serving, meaning Birtch can still attend and chair council meetings if he wants to, something the head of the London Abused Women’s Centre says needs to change.

“(LAWC) would definitely be in a position to say that the Municipal Act should change so the City of Woodstock, or any city, has the ability to force a person in a position of power … to step down when there are allegations to this degree,” said Jennifer Dunn, LAWC’s executive director.

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“When a person who has allegedly done something, such as the mayor of Woodstock, and is allowed to continue doing what they do day in and day out in a position of power, it really shows women and girls in this exact situation … that what they’ve been through doesn’t matter, and there is no accountability there.”

Given the seriousness of the allegations against him, Dunn said she believes Birtch should take it upon himself to voluntarily step down, at least for the duration of his court proceedings.

“By not stepping down, what we’re actually doing is showing women and girls in our community that what has happened to them, or what has allegedly happened to them in this case, doesn’t matter,” Dunn said.

“And that’s unbelievably concerning, especially when this guy is supposed to be the leader of his city.”

Birtch was first elected Woodstock’s mayor in 2014 when he defeated then-mayor Pat Sobeski with 40 per cent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2018 with 58.7 per cent of the vote.

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