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Woodstock mayor chairs council meeting amid calls for him to step down following charges

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

With a May court date looming, sidelined from the Woodstock Police Services Board and facing calls for him to step down, Woodstock’s embattled mayor was business as usual on Thursday, chairing the first scheduled meeting of city council since news of his criminal charges first came to light.

Mayor Trevor Birtch, 46, has not spoken publicly about the count of assault and two counts of sexual assault that were laid against him by police in London on Feb. 2. The allegations, which date to last year, involve the same female complainant, according to court documents obtained by Global News.

Despite the charges, Birtch is not required to, and council cannot force him to, step down or take a leave of absence from service under the Municipal Act, meaning he can continue tending to council business if he wishes. Only when an official is sentenced to jail time are they disqualified from serving.

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A screengrab of Thursday’s meeting of Woodstock city council. City of Woodstock via YouTube

The charges against Birtch were not brought up Thursday, but they were the subject of an emergency council session on Feb. 9 that was held largely in camera so councillors could receive legal advice. Few details have been made public about the meeting, which saw Birtch present during the closed portion.

Like Birtch, other members of Woodstock city council have remained mum about the mayor’s charges.

In a statement released after last week’s closed meeting, Acting Mayor Connie Lauder said council “reiterates that this is a matter for Mayor Birtch to respond to through the court proceedings. Under our system of justice an accused receives the benefit of doubt unless and until convicted.”

Read more: Feb. 9, 2022 — Woodstock mayor, councillors meet in emergency council session to address charges

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The accusations were also the basis of an emergency Feb. 7 session of the Woodstock Police Services Board, on which Birtch sits as vice-chair and one of two council appointees.

The board requested that the Ontario Civilian Police Commission investigate whether Birtch violated the code of conduct for board members set out under the Police Services Act. Birtch won’t attend meetings while the probe is underway. Like council, the police services board has no authority to remove Birtch from his position amid the ongoing legal proceedings.

Thursday’s council meeting lasted just over an hour, and no motions were brought forward from other members of council requesting that Birtch voluntarily step down. The meeting was viewed on YouTube by several dozen people, with some expressing incredulity in the comments that Birtch was present.

“You should be disgusted with yourself Trevor Birtch and resign,” wrote one anonymous user.

“Is this a joke? At minimum step aside until … found guilty or innocent,” wrote another.

Birtch also sits on Oxford County council alongside two other Woodstock councillors. He was not present for a meeting held last week, and it’s not clear if he will attend future sittings.

Read more: Feb. 8, 2022 — Woodstock, Ont. council to hold special, closed meeting in wake of charges against mayor

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

The 46-year-old was released by police with an undertaking on the same day as his arrest. Under the terms of the undertaking, he must not communicate with the complainant and two others, or be within 100 metres of where they live, go to school or work, according to the documents.

He 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.

Birtch’s charges were officially sworn in on Dec. 3, the same day he chaired a city council meeting before reports of the charges first emerged.

The allegations have not been proven in court, and Birtch will appear in court in London for the first time on May 2. Birtch has not responded to several requests for comment.

Given the seriousness of the accusations against him, Birtch is facing calls to step down from several local agencies, including the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC).

Speaking with Global News early last week, Jennifer Dunn, the agency’s executive director, called on Birtch to step down voluntarily, at least for the duration of his court proceedings, saying that by not doing so, women and girls were being told that “what has happened to them, or what has allegedly happened to them in this case, doesn’t matter.”

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Read more: Feb. 7, 2022 — Woodstock, Ont. mayor charged with assault, sexual assault: court documents

Dunn reiterated her position on Thursday and expressed disappointment that Birtch had yet to issue any statements to the public in regard to his accusations.

“Not only is he not doing the right thing by stepping down, but he’s not even willing to perhaps address it in front of the community or in front of his colleagues,” Dunn said.

“I do have family in Woodstock, and from what I’ve heard over the past many years that he has been serving as mayor, he has been a stand-up guy. He’s been a real community leader.

“I think he owes it to the community to — what we think, you know, step aside — but at least have some kind of explanation as to why he’s not even addressing it with the public when it is a public issue.”

Others, including the head of Domestic Abuse Services Oxford and the co-chair of Oxford County Domestic Abuse Resource Team, have also called for Birtch to step down, according to the London Free Press.

In the wake of the charges, LAWC plans to seek delegation status at a future meeting of Woodstock council, Dunn said.

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“What we would like to discuss, given our expertise in the community, is the impacts of violence against women … and then ultimately with a recommendation to the mayor himself that he step down,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the timing didn’t really work out for us to do it at this meeting, but we’re hopeful for the next meeting on March 3 or March 17.”

Dunn says she believes the Municipal Act should be reviewed to give councils the ability to force someone in power to step down when accused of serious crimes.

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