Mayor wants to reorganize office of last resort for citizens’ complaints
By Robert Frank
Diane Lemelin is the latest person to head out the revolving door at the head of Laval’s ombudsman service.
City council voted 15-three to relieve the 51-year-old corporate lawyer of her duties at its meeting, Jan. 14, less than three months after it appointed her to the office. The dissenting councillors were Denis Robillard, Jacques St. Jean and Yvon Martineau.
Lemelin was the third person to hold the newly created post during the past year.
The first, Carole Leduc, was not qualified as a member of the Quebec Bar, and resigned on April 30, 2012. In mid-July, lawyer Julie Cuddihy took on the duties of ombudsman, but left office a few weeks later. On Oct. 15, 2012, Lemelin was appointed to succeed her.
“We want to change the structure of the ombudsman’s office,” Laval mayor Alexandre Duplessis told The Suburban in an interview, Jan. 17.
“I was the first person to advocate [introducing] this service,” he attested, “but we have to find another way to go about it.”
“The current system is a hybrid, which employs a secretary-general as well as a few [volunteer] commissioners to assess requests from citizens,” Duplessis explained.
“This kind of structure is not very good, so we want to develop an [ombudsman] organization more like Montreal’s, and have only one person who responds to all requests from A-to-Z and conducts investigations, in order to better serve our citizens.”
The mayor said that a successor to Lemelin has not yet been identified. He added that he plans to meet the president of the Laval’s ombudsman office, Josée Cailloux, this week “to discuss how we can improve this kind of service.”
A senior official in city hall told The Suburban that tensions quickly arose after top municipal civil servants attempted to compromise the ombudsman’s independence by placing the office under the authority of Gaétan Turbide, Laval’s top civil servant.
The Suburban has obtained a copy of a Jan. 7 interim report, which claims that the city administration and the mayor “systematically violated” the provisions of the Laval bylaw that created the ombudsman’s office.
“The administration and the mayor’s office interfered,” it contended. “Until Nov. 27, the ombudsman’s office did not have access to its own voicemail box or control over incoming calls,” declared the report. “Besides being among the most drastic forms of interference, the situation violated the very principle of independence and confidentiality of ombudsman office files.”
The report claimed that the city planning department ignored a wide range of Lemelin’s requests for information. It also indicated that the city’s latest budget cut the ombudsman’s budget by 46 percent to $108,000, down from $200,000 the year before.
The report underscored that doing this sort of job is a full-time proposition in cities like Montreal, Quebec City, Gatineau and Longueil, but that Lemelin was only paid two days a week, and contributed the rest of her time “on a volunteer basis”, processing and investigating citizens’ complaints without the benefit of support staff.
“The concept of an independent ombudsman, which is widely recognized throughout Quebec, ought to be unambiguously recognized [in Quebec law] to guarantee the free exercise of ombudsman powers in perpetuity,” the report continued. “This recommendation will ultimately be directed to the Quebec government.”
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