Woodstock Mayor Trevor Birtch and other members of city council met Wednesday afternoon for an emergency, closed-door meeting to address the criminal charges laid against him last week by police in London.
The meeting, which began at 3:30 p.m. and lasted for roughly an hour, saw councillors receive legal advice from the city solicitor, according to a statement from Connie Lauder, Woodstock’s acting mayor.
Birtch was not present at the start of the meeting, but did sign on once councillors went in camera, appearing for a portion of the closed session, said David Creery, the city’s chief administrative officer.
The meeting came exactly a week after he was arrested and charged by London police with assault and sexual assault in relation to allegations that date to last year involving the same female complainant.
Few other details have been provided about the content of the meeting, which was held almost entirely in camera.
“City Council reiterates that this is a matter for Mayor Birtch to respond to through the court proceedings,” Lauder’s statement reads. “Under our system of justice an accused receives the benefit of doubt unless and until convicted.”
Under the province’s municipal act, there is no requirement for an elected official accused or even convicted of a crime to step down or take a leave of absence from service. It’s only when that official is sentenced to jail that they are disqualified from serving.
“There is no authority for a city council to require an elected member to step down or take a leave of absence from city council,” Lauder said in her statement.
While Birtch attended Wednesday’s emergency council meeting, he was absent from a meeting of Oxford County Council earlier in the day, on which he sits as one of three city representatives.
“This is now a matter before the courts and we await the outcome along with the rest of the community,” said Oxford County Warden Larry Martin in a statement. “For now, our thoughts are with everyone impacted by this news.”
Birtch was arrested by London police on Feb. 2 and charged with one count of assault and two counts of sexual assault, including one of sexual assault with choking, according to court documents obtained by Global News.
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.
London police released Birtch with an undertaking on the same day as his arrest. As part of his undertaking, Birtch must not communicate with the complainant and two others, or be within 100 metres of where they live, go to school, or work, court documents show.
Birtch is also barred from possessing any firearms or weapons, and had to turn over all firearms in his possession to London police when he was released.
The allegations against Birtch have not been proven in court. Birtch will appear in court in London for the first time on May 2.
Global News has attempted to contact Birtch for comment, but has not received a response.
Though Birtch can still attend city council if he so chooses, he won’t be present for meetings of the Woodstock Police Services Board, on which he sits as vice-chair, and as one of two council appointees.
Board members held an emergency meeting on Monday to address the charges against Birtch, and requested the Ontario Civilian Police Commission initiate an investigation, said chair Ken Whiteford.
Birtch, who Whiteford says attended a portion of the 90-minute meeting to “make his position clear,” will not attend future meetings of the board while the OCPC’s investigation is underway.
“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,” Whiteford told Global News on Tuesday.
The police services board has no authority to permanently remove Birtch from his position amid the ongoing legal proceedings.
Whiteford says it’s not clear how long it will take for the OCPC to finish its investigation, which he notes would look at whether Birtch violated the code of conduct set out for members of police service boards under the Police Services Act.
According to the Act, if the OCPC concludes after a hearing 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.”