Montreal cleans up municipal mess, next-door Laval set to reach for the broom
By Sidhartha Banerjee, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Tuesday, November 6, 2012 1:14PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, November 6, 2012 7:53PM EST
MONTREAL—Following the abrupt departure of the mayor of Canada's second-largest city, attention turned Tuesday to the enormous task of cleaning up a wider political mess in Quebec.
The provincial government tabled landmark political-financing legislation that would limit donations to a mere $100, all but eliminating partisan donations in the province. Bill 2 was the second piece of legislation tabled by the new PQ government -- both of which have been anti-corruption bills.
The move came one day after Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay resigned. Thoughts in the city turned to finding an interim replacement for Tremblay, who a decade ago became the first mayor of the newly merged Montreal megacity.
Both provincial and municipal politicians said they preferred to go the interim-mayor route and not hold a costly election now, just one year before next November's scheduled vote.
Instead, a temporary replacement will be installed in the next few weeks to guide Montreal's scandal-plagued administration until an election.
The Quebec government appeared pleased with the resignation.
It expressed a mixture of "relief and sadness" at Tremblay's departure -- which it described as the responsible choice, given the circumstances. Jean-Francois Lisee, the minister responsible for Montreal, praised Tremblay for his lengthy public service during a Quebec City news conference.
The PQ government also tabled a bill Tuesday that would set political donations near zero. The province was the first in Canada to ban donations from corporations in the 1970s, when it set a $3,000 limit on personal contributions. That limit recently fell to $1,000, and the PQ bill would chop it down to $100.
The Quebec government would also do the opposite of what the Harper government did in its most recent political reforms: the PQ bill eliminates tax refunds for political contributions, and more than doubles the public subsidy to $1.67 per vote. The Harper Tories recently abolished public subsidies for federal parties, while keeping the tax refund for donors.
Like the PQ, however, the Tories did reduce political donations (to $1,100) with their first piece of legislation upon taking office nearly seven years ago.
Quebec's flurry of reforms has been prompted by a high-profile corruption inquiry that has exposed bid-rigging, political corruption and Mafia ties in the construction industry.
While Montrealers began to look to the future, next-door Laval was still led by a mayor who has ruled the city for the last 23 years.
Gilles Vaillancourt, the mayor of Laval, has been accused of accepting kickbacks and has been targeted with several raids by the province's anti-corruption unit.
On Tuesday, Quebec's anti-corruption squad executed search warrants at several businesses in Laval, the province's third-largest city. The raids appeared to target four engineering firms; authorities said no arrests were imminent.
Vaillancourt has taken a leave for unspecified medical reasons, while denying the allegations against him. He is weighing his options about his political future.
The provincial government had little to say about Vaillancourt on Tuesday: "We respected Mr. Tremblay's period of reflection and we're doing the same for Mr. Vaillancourt," Lisee said.
But the local stalwart's grasp on power appeared tenuous.
Tuesday's police interventions were just the latest in a series of strikes by Quebec's anti-corruption squad in the city next to Montreal. Another three strikes were aimed at Vaillancourt's homes, city hall office and even his bank safety-deposit boxes.
Vaillancourt has been accused in the past of offering cash bribes to provincial politicians over the years and has angrily denied those accusations. He has denied more recent allegations at the inquiry that he personally pocketed a kickback from construction contracts.
Vaillancourt was reportedly planning to resign this week but the municipality issued a statement denying the news story.
If he does decide to go, the city could see a similar scenario to the one playing out in Montreal and both could be run by interim mayors appointed by municipal council.
Tremblay, who has spent years denying knowledge of corruption, faced intense pressure to quit after a former aide testified at Quebec's public inquiry that he was in fact aware and indifferent to evidence of wrongdoing within his party.
He called the allegation untrue. But he said he was quitting because the city had become politically paralyzed: employees have been suspended, big construction contracts are frozen, and the municipal budget has to be rewritten amid public anger over property-tax hikes.
One provincial opposition party said the PQ could have done more. Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition party, stopped short of demanding that Montreal be placed under trusteeship. But he suggested that an independent observer be assigned to oversee the city administration.
Municipal opposition parties had their own ideas: they hope to see a coalition run the city's powerful executive committee and ensure that all parties be involved in city management.
"We need an executive committee that includes a coalition to represent the political spectrum of Montreal," said Vision Montreal leader Louise Harel, the leader of the municipal opposition.
"Our first goal is to re-establish and rebuild the trust in the administration at city hall."
Richard Bergeron, leader of the smaller Projet Montreal party, said the political situation warrants a collaborative effort in the decision-making body. "We have to work together to relaunch Montreal in the next year," Bergeron said.
The majority house leader for the governing Union Montreal party, Marvin Rotrand, said he hoped to see a more harmonious attitude at city council but would leave the makeup of the executive committee to whomever is picked as the interim mayor.
Tremblay's Union Montreal holds the majority on city council and the next mayor is likely to come from the ruling party.
The provincial government indicated that could happen by next week but Rotrand said that, by law, it could happen anytime over the next month.
"I think the first priority is to get a mayor into office... That person will have to look into what the options are," Rotrand said.
"We have to find a way to advance the agenda of Montrealers."
Neither Bergeron nor Harel said they would sit on an all-party executive committee. Both said they intend to focus on running for mayor in 2013.
The ripple effect from Tremblay's departure was felt in Ottawa.
Liberal MP Denis Coderre, being touted as a possible mayoral candidate, found himself peppered with questions about municipal politics while still working on Parliament Hill. He avoided weighing in on the outgoing mayor.
"History will judge Gerald Tremblay," Coderre said. "It's not up to me to judge Gerald Tremblay. It's not up to me to do the (Charbonneau) commission's job."
Coderre said he'd have more to say Friday, when he holds a fundraiser in Montreal. He is expected to shed additional light on his local ambitions.
Other commentary saluted Tremblay's departure.
The head of Montreal's police union, Yves Francoeur, said he had done the responsible thing by leaving. He'd called for his resignation earlier.
The Montreal Chamber of Commerce saluted Tremblay's time at the helm, saying he left the city in a better economic situation.
But it called his departure necessary.
"In the current context, it was difficult for the mayor of Montreal to provide all the necessary leadership to properly direct the City and restore trust with Montrealers," chamber president Michel Leblanc said in a statement.
Leblanc said allegations before the Charbonneau Commission are troubling and suggest that the municipal level needs major reform.