Reeve Peter Emon apologizes

Renfrew Reeve Peter Emon

Renfrew—The reeve of Renfrew has apologized to town residents for his failure to provide adequate oversight on the Ma-te-Way expansion which came in more than double the budget and was two years late.

In an exclusive interview with the Leader, Reeve Peter Emon said he not only apologized for his personal shortcomings, but indicated his support for whatever future actions council feels should be taken. Those actions may include potential legal action if a forensic audit provides evidence of criminal activity involving individuals or businesses connected to the project.

One question that has dogged him is why the same level of criticism and finger-pointing directed at Mayor Tom Sidney has not been levelled at him.

He admits the level of anger and frustration from residents who will be on the hook for the $17 million overage is real and it has shaken the confidence many residents once had in both council and town staff.

One thing the audit concluded was one way or another, the brunt of the annual payment on the 30-year debenture the town will be forced into will be on the backs of the homeowners who make up the town of 8,100 residents.

To make matters worse, the payments cannot include any large lump sum payments or an opportunity to scale back the 30-year commitment by five or 10 years to help reduce the $15.2 million in interest payments. Those payments will be largely drawn from residential taxes placed on taxpayers. The increases will be constant for several years and that has led to widespread outrage and a total mistrust of both council and town staff.

Many residents have lost faith because although the report lists numerous failures and recommendations, no individual or business has been identified for countless infractions of policy. On top of that, there has been no discussion of pursuing financial compensation from those deemed to have had a role in the financial loss. 

These are enormous issues to overcome and for some residents, the first step to restoring trust is a simple apology from any member of the current or past council.

Reeve Emon agrees that is the first step to help the town recover and help mark a return to forward thinking and hopefully end the nonstop consumption of all the negative aspects of the expansion project.

“I intended to apologize on Tuesday night at council but thought it might get lost in the theatre of politics,” he told the Leader. “I apologize to the people of the town of Renfrew with regards to the Ma-te-Way project. As a member of the past council and as a member of the current council, I have a duty to ask questions. It is not enough to ask the most questions at council meetings or at committee. They have to be the correct questions.”

With more than 36 years municipal experience, including his current position as Warden of Renfrew County, a position he has held for six years, he is no rookie. He has held the position of Chair of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (EOWC) on separate occasions. As EOWC chair, he routinely meets with provincial and federal ministers for pre-budget presentations or high-ranking policy directors in various ministries responsible for delivering high-speed broadband to rural communities such as Renfrew County.

When he meets with these influential policy makers, he is the official voice of 13 member municipalities (counties) covering 50,000 square kilometers in Eastern Ontario that is home to 800,000 residents. He lobbies for Renfrew and Easter Ontario municipalities that depend on the EOWC to convince the senior levels of government to provide funding and resources for a variety of services.

So, it is natural to ask Reeve Emon how in the world he could not see the runaway financial train that not only went off the rails but had barely crawled out of the station when, after only five months into construction, the expansion was already close to $1 million over budget.

Looking back, he cites the natural instinct to trust the people put in charge of being placed in senior positions, both in the pre-planning and forecasting to the actual construction managers who are supposed to draw on their decades of experience to ensure a smooth process.

“I accepted answers which indicated the numbers for the project were correct and that the municipality had the capacity to build this project,” he said. “For example, I was pointed to the Waste Water and Water Plant builds as examples of complex projects completed by the town. In retrospect that response should not have been enough on its own.” 

Although the new members of council have shown a non-stop approach to getting answers, it is an approach that may likely further divide an already fractious council. The motions to remove both the reeve and mayor from traditional committee assignments combined with Mayor Sidney’s suggestion to wait until the investigation has been fully completed before they start demanding resignations has the potential to come back and haunt the five rookie councillors.

There is the possibility that further investigation may conclude that all members of the previous council (2018-2022) should be further criticized and be accountable for established pattern of failing to enforce established town policies.

This audit has been consistent in one aspect. The more the auditors dig the more they uncover and the previous council may find themselves tarnished even more due to their lack of due diligence. If such a revelation should occur it may be the trigger for some of those previously elected individuals to follow Reeve Emon’s example and apologize.

Reeve Emon expressed disappointment for the five new councillors on their approach to find answers. It was clearly visible to anyone following this council that the five councillors slowly adopted an aggressive approach in some of their actions.

When discussing the rationale for placing his Notice of Motion on the January council agenda, Councillor John McDonald made reference that in the opinion of the new members, they adopted a more aggressive tone with their veteran counterparts in relation to recruiting a consultant. He stated the new councillors grew frustrated with what they perceived as foot-dragging by Mayor Sidney to lead the members in recruiting a consultant and it was noted they considered the mayor’s reluctance to schedule meetings solely dedicated to all members working together to expedite the auditing process.

All of council voted in favour of launching a forensic audit to see if any criminal charges are warranted and neither the reeve nor mayor attempted to slow down that particular action.

Reeve Emon agreed it might have been a little overwhelming for the new councillors at the beginning of their term. The incoming councillors were barely finished taking their Oath of Office in late 2022 and were just settling into a comprehensive orientation schedule designed to have them understand the vast roles and responsibilities of an elected official by attending long orientation sessions presented by CAO Robert Tremblay.

“They were informed of the Ma-te-Way financial disaster that was their number one priority whether they liked it or not,” he said. “They ran positive campaigns and were elected among a large pool of candidates to sit at the council table. They entered council with enthusiasm and excitement because they campaigned on Renfrew’s future and potential opportunities for success but that was put to the side as they had to deal with a problem they unknowingly inherited from previous councils and former senior staff members.”

He acknowledges the auditors never begin an audit with preconceived notions as they base their findings on old fashioned investigative skills and one of those findings included the fault of the previous council members to do their due diligence which includes standing up for Renfrew taxpayers. Reeve Emon acknowledges he himself fell short in terms of proper financial oversight as a member of the 2018-2022 council.

Silence of Former Council

The reeve also took a sarcastic swing at all his former colleagues for their collective silence in their role in the Ma-te-Way expansion. He also grew increasingly frustrated as some current members of council began to hold him personally responsible for the actions of some former senior staff members. It is documented they were quick to assign blame to only he and Mayor Sidney of ignoring standard procurement policies which directly led to unexplained cost overages.

During last week’s meeting when all five new councillors voted in favour of a motion removing him from committees, some councillors insisted Reeve Emon was not an effective chair of the Human Resources Committee he chaired for eight years.

Reeve Emon was both confused and offended that he was viewed by some as a negative influence on committee members and he misused his role as chair when he convinced the members to select the wrong people for senior management positions.

He said the argument forwarded during the motion to remove him from various committee was not only flawed, but the auditors have so far failed to make that claim due to a lack of evidence contained in the 80,000 documents that were reviewed by the consultants.

He disputes the theory that his ability to persuade fellow HR committee members to knowingly make several flawed personnel decisions culminated in the lack of transparency and lack of oversight is based only on speculation.

He refused to accept the argument that he was basically a one-man show and convinced HR members to select the wrong candidate and they were in place when the expansion project was seen as ready to go.

“I should likely apologize to past Mayor Don Eady, past councillors Evans, Heins, Sidney, Coulas and Jamieson as it appears I ran the town by myself as the chair of the Human Resources Committee,” he told the Leader, perhaps a bit tounge-in-cheek. “Maybe I need to broaden that to include present Councillor Andrew Dick, Councillors Cybulski, Legree, McWhirter and Mayor Sidney as well as past and present town of Renfrew staff. I was unaware that I was a one person show.”

He said his removal from town committees will have no bearing on his responsibilities as warden. Among those duties is membership and voting privileges on the county’s five standing committees.

The five committees provide oversight in the areas of finance; health services (Bonnechere Manor and Miramichi Lodge, paramedics, health unit and others); social services (Ontario Works, Social Housing, homelessness, child care); public works (infrastructure, road and bridge repairs, snow removal, etc.) and development and property (forestry, economic development, property maintenance of all county buildings, etc.).

These appointments are among several areas of responsibilities that he is mandated to oversee as the Warden of Renfrew County.

Reeve Emon is optimistic the negativity surrounding the Ma-te-Way experience will get resolved.

“When that time comes, the residents can shake off the constant need to look backwards and all the negative emotions that it naturally becomes the narrative,” he said. “I am optimistic we will finally get past the anger and disappointment that many of us have harboured at one time or another the past few years.

“I am looking forward to the day when we realize the possibilities that the new complex can offer and that will lead to a positive outlook on the state-of-the-art facility and the many benefits it will deliver.”