Larabie calls River Valley landfill issue ‘a witch hunt’

West Nipissing’s chief administrative officer Jay Barbeau presented a memo to council addressing alleged “wrongdoing by staff as well as the volunteers who continue to ensure the delivery of landfill services in some of our outlying areas.” Barbeau’s memo was in response to questions and comments at an earlier council meeting from councillor Denis Senecal who questioned an “expenditure to the River Valley Landfill Corporation.”

Specifically, Senecal wanted to know who sits on the River Valley Waste Management Board “and why they are not accountable to council.” He also questioned “who is responsible for accounting of periodic $5,000 fees paid by the municipality.” He outlined these questions in an agenda item request form, dated August 29th, 2022.

Barbeau’s memo explained the suggestion of wrongdoing regarding the River Valley landfill was also put forward by Councillor Denis Senecal “on a private political Facebook page.” Barbeau noted “the implication is that staff is holding back information and condoning wrongful financial transactions,” adding “these insinuations have now been commented and expanded upon by members of the public, some who are candidates for future office.”

Barbeau explained that the municipality does not “have the records of who are the officers and directors of the individual corporations,” so he could not answer Senecal’s question of who sits on the board. “There is no need” for the municipality to know, Barbeau added. “I know that this does not satisfy the political rumour mongering during an election period, however we, as administrators, do not share the same goals as some of you.”

As for the $5,000 payment made to the River Valley landfill, a payment other councillors questioned—Senecal was not alone in his concern—unsure as to why the amount was doled out. However, this concern was also raised in October of 2020, Mayor Joanne Savage added.

Around that time Councillor Denis Senecal issued a complaint to the municipality’s integrity commissioner, concerned that Councillor Roland Larabie was in a conflict of pecuniary interest regarding that disbursement as he was—and still is—the chair of the Environmental Services Board, which oversees waste management in the municipality. Mayor Savage questioned whether Larabie performed some contract work for the landfill, which given his connection with the Environmental Services Board, could be viewed as a conflicting interest.

The integrity commissioner took on the case and noted that Larabie “may have been ‘perceived’ to be in a conflict of interest” but “after investigation and because of the history of said expenses paid by the Municipality, I had recommended to council that no penalty be imposed.”

As the issue dates back two years, “it is confusing to me why a councillor would question this at this point in the term,” Barbeau explained in his memo. Larabie emphasized that “no one on the board is being paid, it’s all volunteer,” noting the entire issue “is a witch hunt to try to make me look bad.”

However, Mayor Savage took offense with that suggestion, and was unsatisfied by Barbeau’s explanations. She has “been waiting for two years” for answers, she said, which have not been delivered.

Barbeau provided some history, explaining that the Lavigne, River Valley, Muskosung, and Kipling Landfill Corporations were formed prior to the amalgamation of West Nipissing in 1999. These corporations “existed as a mechanism to deal with the province” to provide landfill services “in the same manner as local roads boards.”

Once amalgamated, “we assumed the maintenance of all roads,” Barbeau outlined, “which eliminated the need for those roads boards to remain.” However, the council of the day “chose to maintain the existing structure for landfills,” and those sites are still overseen by individual non-profit corporations and by the boards that guide them.

Barbeau explained that maintaining the boards was “to keep costs low and to have continuity in the outlying areas.” The corporations are non-profit, he added, and each submits annual budgets to the municipality that is “reviewed internally and adjusted by staff.” The budgets are then presented to council for approval “as part of the global landfill budget.”

Once approved “there are periodic disbursements to the non-profits to allow them to operate as per our requirements.” Barbeau made clear that the $5,000 paid out “is one of those periodic disbursements,” adding that occasionally there are expenses “over and above the regular maintenance expenditures” and “this is sometimes paid directly by the Municipality to a contractor.”

In other instances, “depending on the urgency and the best solution,” the municipality will cut a cheque to the non-profit corporation operating the landfill so the board can “look after the matter directly.” In each scenario, “the expenditures are scrutinized by staff,” Barbeau’s memo assured.

During the September 20th council meeting, Barbeau emphasized that “the $5,000 is an interim payment for services that are being provided at River Valley landfill.” He continued, “we feel comfortable that there is no issue here in any of our landfill sites that would indicate to us that there is any malfeasance or anything like that.”

Furthermore, “If we feel there are anomalies in our accounting processes, or that there have been nefarious acts, we certainly would be on it and catching it,” Barbeau told council members, adding “there are no issues here.”

Barbeau said “assertions made that we are cutting cheques to ‘ghost corporations’ with no knowledge of where the payments end up is false and absurd.” He emphasized that staff know how much it costs to operate the landfill, and staff “would catch anomalies” if anything was amiss. “The expenditures are common in all sites; the majority of the expense is paying the gate attendants for the hours that the site is open.”

After much discussion, Mayor Savage remained unsatisfied by Barbeau’s explanation. “We would not be having a heated discussion if we were just provided the information and answers to the questions.”

“What information are you asking for?” Barbeau said.

Mayor Savage outlined how she disagreed with Larabie referring to the process of “asking questions and seeking answers” as a witch-hunt, but before she could answer Barbeau specifically, the meeting devolved, as some councillors insisted on speaking over each other to make a point.

“Knowing where this is all going,” Larabie said, “I think we’re going to close this meeting.”

As the meeting neared a premature end, Senecal tried to get his question answered, asking Larabie if “he is on the board” of the River Valley landfill, because the residents “need to know.”

Larabie laughed, and answered “I know, but I don’t need to tell you.”

David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca