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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Greenway

Low resident ordered to repay money that caused scandal

Low resident Lee McLaughlin has been ordered to repay nearly $15,000 in back taxes to the municipality — money that was previously forgiven by councillors in a controversial vote that caused a conflict-of-interest scandal involving a municipal councillor.


According to court documents, a Quebec judge rendered a decision on Nov. 27, 2020, ordering McLaughlin – the mother of municipal Coun. Maureen Rice – to repay $4,210 in back taxes relating to her farm in Venosta. With interest dating back to 2013 and court fees, the total repayment amount is $14,493.


Low Director-General Sandra Martineau said that she found the file sitting in municipal urbanism files on May 1 of this year — nearly three years after Justice Steve Guénard rendered his decision. Martineau said she has no idea how long the decision had been sitting in the municipal archives but added that it was not certified by the courts until May 12, 2023.


“I found the judgment on May 1 at 3 p.m. in the property files that we use for urbanism purposes. It never occurred to me to look there for it,” said Martineau.


“Municipal archives are not the best. Changes are being made for us to track information faster and keep the info up to date and easy to find,” she added, referring to Low switching to digital archives through Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.


Readers may recall back in April when Low Coun. Maureen Rice was in the hot seat after locals were at odds over whether she abstained during the vote to wipe out nearly $10,000 of debt on her mother’s farm. The minutes from that April 3 meeting confirm that Rice abstained, but the scandal ripped through the town of Low and led to the municipality serving two residents with lawyer’s letters for “defamatory” remarks made to this newspaper and during council meetings.


Martineau told the Low Down then that the debt was “uncollectable” because it was more than three years in arrears and that the municipality had no choice but to forgive the debt.


The issue came back up during the Aug. 7 council meeting, where residents were furious over the prospect that the decision had been sitting in municipal files for three years.


“So, in the meantime, that [judgement] has sat since 2020 in the office?” asked resident Albert Kealey. Immediately, several councillors and Mayor Carole Robert corrected him, emphasizing that they could not have been aware of the decision until the courts “certified” it in May.


“That judgement wasn’t visible until it was certified on May 12,” said Coun. Ghyslain Robert. “That is not on us. You can call the courthouse and find out why the judge sat on it for three years because that is literally what happened.” He added that the document “became public” when the courts registered it on May 12.


But Martineau “discovered” the document on May 1 in Low’s municipal archives — 11 days before the courts certified it. Martineau said she then verified the information with municipal lawyers before alerting the mayor. Martineau told the Low Down that, “Councillors don’t have access to municipal archives” and therefore had no way of knowing that the decision was sitting among urbanism files at the municipality.


Mayor Robert said that the pandemic caused processing delays at the courthouse and it’s important to note that this decision was handed down in November 2020 - at the height of COVID-19 restrictions in Quebec.


What’s unclear is why councillors – or Mayor Carole Robert – never followed up on the file, especially since Low hired its own lawyers to go after McLaughlin for not paying these taxes between 2013 and 2018. Mayor Robert told the crowd that Martineau had checked court records “several times,” never spotted the file and only found it once “she was advised by a lawyer.” But Martineau claims that she found it independently while digging through urbanism files.


“I never saw that document until you put it on my desk right here,” said Robert, responding to Albert Kealey’s question about when the mayor found out about the decision. “And that’s the honest-to-God truth, Mr. Kealey. I’ve never seen that document before.”


The mayor then shut discussion down over the incident during the meeting.


“You have the clarification, you have the information, so this is a closed subject,” said Mayor Robert. “And we’re not going to bring it up to the table again.”


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