Less than 24 hours after being sworn as mayor of the newly merged City of Saguenay on February 19, 2002, Jean Tremblay moved swiftly into action and convened the city manager — and rebuked him. Fifteen minutes later, the colourful and popular mayor headed towards Bertrand Girard’s office, with television cameras in tow, and handed him a letter that stated he was suspended without pay. Shortly after, Girard was fired.
Seven years later, in a ruling that harshly castigates the mayor for providing testimony akin to science fiction, Quebec Superior Court condemned the city and the mayor to pay nearly $600,000, plus interest and legal costs, to the city manager for wrongful dismissal.
“The Mayor’s testimony was riddled with hesitations, mistakes, forgetfulness, contradictions and false pretexts,” said Judge Yves Alain in a 60-page ruling. “The evidence clearly reveals that the three events held by the Mayor to suspend and dismiss Girard constitute pretexts founded on personal animosity that were used to put an end to the city manager’s contract. There is no doubt these events took place after the final decision was made by the Mayor and his close advisors, who had no intention of working with Girard as the city manager of the new city.”
Girard, a former executive-director of a hospital, was hired and given a five-year contract to be Saguenay’s city manager on October 2001 by a transition committee overseeing the merger of the new city. The transition committee itself was established following an order issued by the Quebec government to force the merger of towns and cities as part of a controversial and sweeping reform undertaken by the provincial government.
But relations between the mayor and the transition committee, particularly its president, were not harmonious, points out the judge. Tremblay was unhappy with the selection of Girard and other civil servants hired by the transition committee. Tremblay testified that he had asked the transition committee to hold off hiring as many people as possible to allow the new city council to appoint civil servants. In short, Tremblay, confident of winning the elections, was hoping to put in his own people.
In spite of receiving a letter of commendation by the transition committee for his work, Girard was suspended and shortly afterwards dismissed by the municipal council five months into his five-year contract. Weeks after being fired, Girard launched a $1.4 million suit against the city for wrongful breach of work contract, including $675,000 in damages.
The city and the mayor argued that the suspension and dismissal was legal, and that certain events led to a breach of confidence. The defendants also argued that certain sections of the order issued by the government that led to the creation of the new city, particularly the sections that led to the creation of the transition committee and its power to nominate the city manager, was invalid – a contention that led the Attorney General of Quebec to be granted the status of intervener in the case.
The judge dismissed all of the defendant’s arguments. Under s. 52 and 53 of the Quebec Cities and Towns Act (Act), mayors have the right of “superintendance, investigation and control” over all the departments and officers or employees of the municipality. Further, in the exercise of his functions as the executive head of the municipal administration, the mayor “shall have the right, at any time” to suspend any officer or employer of the municipality – and report to the council at the first sitting following the suspension.
While the Act does not specify the conditions under which these powers can be exercised, Justice Alain said that a mayor has an obligation to act equitably and have serious grounds. He cannot invoke these powers to settle a personal conflict, but rather must always act in the best interests of the municipality, added Justice Alain.
None of the events invoked by Mayor Tremblay, and ratified by the City Council, to suspend and dismiss Girard were reasonable grounds to suspend the former city manager, let alone fire him, said Judge Alain.
“In the Court’s judgment, the decision to dismiss Girard was imposed by the Mayor on City Council and (he) gave them no place room to contest,” said Judge Alain, who added that he believed that many of the witnesses who testified did so compliantly, “reciting a lesson well-learned,” and in fear of paying the price at the hands of the mayor. “Everything was prepared with surgical precision. They had to wait until the day the new city was created to execute the plan that was conceived.”
Indeed, on the day that the new city was officially created, a ceremony was organized but no place or chair was set aside for Girard and nor was he presented as the city manager – further evidence that mayor’s decision was already taken long before.
The Court also dismissed the defendant’s contention that certain sections of the order issued by the government that led to the creation of the new city were ultra vires. Invalidating the sections of the order that created the transition committee, whose mandate ended on the day the city was officially created, would have a “negative impact” on the municipal organization of the City of Saguenay, noted Judge Alain.
“Even if it was possible to issue a declaration of nullity, the Court would have exercised its discretionary power and refused to invalidate s. 102 and s.132 of the order, given its delay and the impact on the municipal organization of the City of Saguenay.”
Judge Alain declared Girard’s suspension and dismissal null and void, and condemned the city and the mayor to pay Girard $583,460, plus interest and costs. The judge held, however, there were no grounds to provide damages.