Debate over legal fees gets attention

ARICHAT: A heated debate over the cost of four years of legal fees incurred by the municipality received a lot of attention.

During the September 14 committee-of-the-whole meeting of Richmond Municipal Council, district 5 councillor Jason MacLean asked about a cheque issued on June 18 in the amount of $9,324.86 to the law firm Cox & Palmer.

“I’m not happy with that, this is taxpayer’s dollars that have been used to pay off a lawyer and why are people not aware of where their tax dollars are going?” MacLean asked.

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Don Marchand responded that the money was to pay the legal fees for two councillors (warden Brian Marchand and deputy warden Alvin Martell) on conflict-of-interest charges.

“That was a motion that was made at council, and it was approved through council, and we paid it,” the CAO stated.

While he recalls that motion, MacLean said he does not recall any formal motion to hire Cox & Palmer specifically.

As a follow-up to a question posed by Arichat resident Lisa Boudreau in April, 2019 regarding the amount of legal fees paid by Richmond County, MacLean made a motion.

“I would like to make a motion that staff prepare a report for legal services acquired by the municipality, and the associated costs, between September of 2016 to September of 2020,” MacLean said.

Although the motion received no seconder and was defeated, the debate got the attention of former recreation director Josette Marchand.

“From my perspective, hearing about all the expenses, and I was just thinking about my case in particular,” Marchand told The Reporter. “It’s been three-and-a-half years and I was hoping that it wouldn’t get this far. And I’m looking forward to having this behind me and having it settled.”

On January 4, 2019 in Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax, Marchand filed a notice of action against the Municipality of the County of Richmond seeking compensation for the loss of income, compensation for the loss of employment benefits, and damages for the nature of her dismissal, as well as false allegations of wrongdoing.

“Did I feel that I deserved to be fired, of course not,” Marchand stated. “Did I feel that it should’ve come to a resolution earlier, yes. Do I feel now that it’s time that I need to put it behind me, and if it takes letting a judge decide, yes, I look forward to presenting this in court and letting a judge decide. In the end, it has to be resolved one way or another.”

Since starting with the municipality in 2011, Marchand’s statement of claim said net recreation costs were reduced by $100,000 and she secured over $200,000 in funding for the department through registration fees and special grants.

Not just under-budget for her department, Marchand was never over-budget for travel and routinely made decisions aimed at reducing costs, according to her statement.

Marchand said no councillors, or colleagues on staff ever raised any issues with her job performance before this time.

“I was very surprised that that happened,” Marchand said of her termination. “Having no one bring up major issues to my attention about problems with my work and then for it to drag on for three-and-a-half years now almost, I’m kind of looking to get it done and over with. If it takes a judge to decide, well it does, but I find it unfortunate that it has to get this far.”

According to the statement, Marchand became ensnared in the spending scandal involving other municipal employees around March of 2016 but repaid a duplicate payment immediately upon becoming aware of it through a Freedom of Information disclosure, and she brought the issue to the attention of Richmond’s personnel at the time.

About seven months later, Marchand’s name was again brought up in relation to the controversy over expense claims which “caused significant embarrassment.”

“In or about September 2016, an ombudsman’s report about Richmond expenses was leaked to the media and the report erroneously attributed to Marchand an expense for attending a ‘strip club’ in Houston, Texas,” Marchand’s statement of claim reads. “Marchand spent three weeks resolving this error with the ombudsman, without any assistance from Richmond.”

After former Chief Administrative Officer Warren Olsen resigned in October 2016, he was eventually replaced by interim CAO Maris Freimanis who advised Marchand in writing around May 1, 2017 that she was terminated for cause.

“… Marchand was escorted from the building, and when she tried to organize her desk so that her work product would be available to Richmond, she was advised to leave,” the statement reads.

Marchand’s statement recalls that after being provided with general reasons for her termination, no specific examples were given. She also claims that she “routinely alerted Richmond’s finance department that it was overpaying her by way of expense reimbursement.”

Marchand said all issues with expense reporting were the result of the municipality’s “failure to enforce policy and provide appropriate staff training” and any wrongdoing was caused by other personnel. She added that she was targeted by other employees and some councillors.

“For me it’s personal because it’s my reputation, but at the same time, I have to move on with my life,” Marchand noted.

In the notice of defence, lawyer Lisa M. Gallivan said the municipality denies Marchand was wrongfully dismissed, or that it did anything that would render it liable for damages.

The defence contends that the organizational review in March, 2017 uncovered wrongdoing by Marchand.

“During the time of the review, it was discovered that the plaintiff had falsified expense claims including the submission of more than one claim for the same travel expense and claiming expenses for items for which appropriate receipts could not be provided,” the defence notice reads.

The municipality asserts that it followed proper procedure in terminating Marchand’s employment, and they did not rush her from her office.

“At the conclusion of this meeting, the plaintiff abruptly left the office of the CAO and returned to her office to collect her belongings,” the statement reads. “An employee of the defendant was asked to assist the plaintiff with anything she required at that time. The plaintiff was provided with approximately 20-30 minutes in her office to collect her personal items. She was asked to leave her office when it appeared that she was deleting items from a cell phone issued to her and belonging to the defendant. Following her termination, the plaintiff used her Apple ID to erase her iPhone.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Marchand and the municipality are scheduled to appear in court via video conference on November 6 to set a date for the hearing.

“It’s disappointing, it could’ve been settled a long time ago,” Marchand added. “They didn’t resolve it. They didn’t resolve everything. I haven’t received an ROE [Record of Employment] ever.

“It’s something I’m looking forward to deal with once and for all, and to put it behind me. It’s kept my life on hold until it’s dealt with.”