Low sends lawyers after vocal locals
Low resident Steve Connolly has been served with a lawyer’s letter demanding that he retract comments he made to this newspaper – and in emails – regarding a conflict of interest vote involving a municipal councillor.
He said he has no intention of doing either.
“I have 48 hours to put a written apology to the Low Down, I have to stand up [at the May 1 council meeting] and give an apology to the councillor, which I’m not going to do,” Connolly said, days after being served with a demand letter from DHC Lawyers in Montreal.
Connolly did not apologize during the May 1 meeting.
Connolly told the Low Down on April 13 that “Every councillor raised their hand in favour of the forgiveness vote” – an agenda item that forgave close to $10,000 on a Venosta farm that belongs to the mother of Coun. Maureen Rice.
He doubled down on those statements on May 5 in an interview with the Low Down. When asked if he still stands by his statement that he saw Coun. Rice raise her hand during the controversial vote, he said, “Yes. And we have declarations from people, too, not necessarily that [all councillors] raised their hands, but that they were at the meeting and that they did not see any evidence whatsoever of abstention.”
The issue began during Low’s April 3 council meeting, when councillors voted in favour of cancelling $9,780 of “uncollectible” debt for a numbered property. Low director-general Sandra Martineau explained that, because the property taxes were over three years in arrears, the municipality had no choice but to forgive the debt, as per the municipal code. The property in question, however, belongs to the mother of Coun. Rice, and some residents and councillors are at odds over whether or not Coun. Rice abstained from the vote.
Martineau told the Low Down that Coun. Rice “didn’t move a finger” during the vote and the official minutes – adopted at the May 1 council meeting – state that Rice did abstain from the vote. Rice told the Low Down that she abstained because she didn’t want there to be a “perception of a conflict of interest.”
But Connolly disagreed with the version of events and sent out emails following the vote to fellow residents stating his opinion on the issue. It’s these emails, obtained by the Low Down – and comments made in the April 19 edition – that lawyers are calling “defamatory.”
“The mayor and councillors at Low municipality are again running for cover,” wrote Connolly in an April 10 email. “At the public council meeting held on April 3, 2023, they voted unanimously to forgive the unpaid taxes of $9,780.95 due for a period of over three years ago, for a property in the municipality.” The lawyer’s letter goes on to include the following excerpts from the same email.
“Councillor Rice’s action to vote for the forgiveness of taxes was a serious conflict of interest even if she was ignorant of what she was doing. But can she really argue credibly that her action was not deliberate? Citizens everywhere believe that her actions were calculated…. Conflict of interest is one thing but deliberately doing so, if proven, is fraud.”
The lawyer representing Low, Rino Soucy wrote in the letter that the comments made are a direct attack on the reputations of Mayor Carole Robert, Coun. Rice and Coun. Joanne Mayer.
“These excerpts from your defamatory comments are not only casting aspersions on the mayor, Councillor Rice, Councillor Mayer and the township, but also insinuating that Councillor Rice would have exerted undue influence and even used her position and the municipal administration in order to favour her relative.”
Connolly was given 48 hours to publicly retract his statements, but has yet to do so. He has yet to receive another letter.
This was the second legal letter served to Connolly: he received another lawyer’s letter dated April 14 from the same firm that cited Connolly’s “aggressive and unacceptable behaviour” at the April 3 council meeting. Connolly argued that he was only “asking very good questions” and didn’t become aggressive at the meeting.
Low resident John Cameron was also served with a lawyer’s letter from the same firm for “unacceptable behavior” at the April 3 council meeting. At the following meeting on May 1, Cameron and Connolly both asked council to open an investigation into the controversial vote. Most said no, however Coun. Lee Angus told the crowd that he intended to file a complaint with municipal affairs over the vote.
During the meeting, Low resident Albert Kealey stood up and asked council how much it cost to send the legal letters to Connolly and Cameron.
“Is it $1,000? $2,000? $3,000? It’s money wasted,” he said. “Mr. Connolly doesn’t deserve a letter like that. You should be ashamed of yourselves. How much did that cost us to send a letter to a man that’s trying to help the whole community?”
Mayor Robert replied, “I don’t have that amount.” Kealey fired back. “Did you not think of requesting to the lawyer as to how much it was going to cost to send out those letters?” asked Kealey. He later surveyed the crowd and asked, “Anybody that supports Steve, put your hands up.” Over half of the close to 80 in attendance raised their hand.
Councillors fed up with ‘harassment’
The Low Down sat down with Coun. Rice and Coun. Ghyslain Robert on April 20, who spoke of a pattern of harassment and intimidation that they’ve experienced from Connolly and Cameron over the last several months. Rice told the Low Down that she has felt intimidated, and described weeks where she would get three to four emails per day from the pair of vocal citizens. Rice shared some of these emails with the Low Down — one in which Cameron expresses his “total disgust” over Rice’s budget vote and suggested that she “consider not running for council again,” as taxpayers wouldn’t forget her actions.
“I also find it to be intimidation,” said Coun. Rice. “[Cameron] is not going to change my mind on how I want to vote, but do I feel that he’s trying to intimidate us? Absolutely.”
Coun. Robert agreed and described the past several months at council as being wrought with unproven allegations, shouting matches and “a tiny group of citizens” accusing councillors of corruption.
“In the last two months, they went too far. Now they are attacking our livelihoods and our families, our reputations,” said Coun. Robert. “We can’t have [these people] running around telling everybody we are doing fraud. None of it is founded.”
Director-general Martineau told the Low Down that she has been the subject of constant attacks from both Connolly and Cameron, and said she considers some of the comments “personal.”
“I’ve been here since August and there is still a lot of work to be done to get everything up to date, and those kinds of comments, behaviour feel really personal,” she said. “[Connolly and Cameron are] making me feel like I’m not good at my job, even if I’m not responsible for what I have to fix.”
Martineau said that Connolly was shouting at Coun. Mayer during the April 3 questions period.
The Low Down obtained an April 13 email from Cameron to a group of residents that talks about a “scandal” involving back taxes, conflict of interest allegations and the “attempts made to cover it up.”
The municipality also alleges that both Cameron and Connolly impersonated municipal employees and showed up to purchase a garbage truck from Aime Fleury Trucking amid the municipality’s controversial garbage contract renewal.
Martineau told the Low Down that Fleury called town hall to inform her of the visit by Connolly and Cameron and that they “seemed to be representing the municipality.”
The issue came to a head at the May 1 council meeting when Cameron encouraged council to consider purchasing a new garbage truck from Fleury.
“Oh, so you were the one that posed as an employee from the municipality,” said Mayor Robert during the meeting.
“No, I did not. That’s a mistruth,” Cameron fired back. “I did not pose as a municipal employee.”
“Well, that’s not what Mr. Fleury said,” the mayor quipped back.
Connolly also denied the allegations.
“I never pretend to be anybody other than me,” he said. “To pretend to be a municipal employee. No, never. Aime knows me, he knows I’m not.”
Martineau said it’s unclear what the next steps are in the legal process.