Concise, impassioned, deliberate, critical and scathing. Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier dropped a surprising and powerful call to reason on his fellow councillors on Tuesday night.
I say surprising because Cormier isn’t known for giving long speeches in the council chambers. He tends to choose his words carefully and deliberately, keeping things short and logical, and rarely political.
That care and deliberation was very much in evidence on Tuesday night, but this time he zeroed his judicious rhetorical skills not on the business of council, but on the behaviour of some of his fellow councillors.
It was a breath of fresh air.
I’ve reported on many a politician in my 23 years in the news business. I’ve covered a lot of municipal council meetings and listened to a lot of speeches. The five minutes Cormier spent tearing apart a poorly conceived motion from Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier were five minutes of wonderful oratorical sublimity.
If you are out of this particular loop, on Tuesday night, Montpellier introduced a motion calling for an investigation into Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini’s removal from the Police Services Board.
Rambling, vague, conspiratorial and imprecise are just a few ways to describe the document Montpellier asked his colleagues to support. The motion imagines a world that doesn’t exist, a world where his fellow councillors didn’t move to rein in a colleague who had stepped out of line but instead conspired to blindside, backstab and silence him.
It took Cormier but a few minutes to shred that imaginary world.
As detailed in city hall reporter Tyler Clarke’s first-rate summation of events, Montpellier attempted to connect Vagnini’s removal from the police board with a personal dispute the Ward 2 councillor has with Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc.
As Cormier correctly surmised, Montpellier framed the removal not for what it was — a disciplinary action for spreading misinformation about the homelessness situation and for not calling 911 following an incident downtown — but for what he imagined it to be: solely an attempt to besmirch the good name of Mr. Vagnini.
In doing so, Montpellier crafted a motion that conflates unrelated events and draws connections where there are no connections to be made. And Cormier was having none of it.
As detailed in Sudbury.com’s coverage, the motion to remove Vagnini from the PSB was predicated on two things.
One was a Jan. 15 livestream during which Vagnini relayed several pieces of false information regarding stabbings and frozen bodies being pulled from tents in the Memorial Park homeless encampment, as well as a claim the city has $300 million squirreled away that could be used to deal with the homelessness issue. Even after these claims were proven false, Vagnini didn’t clarify or retract them; no, he doubled down and compared himself to Christopher Columbus.
The other was a story Vagnini shared at a Jan. 18 PSB meeting regarding his witnessing of a woman running “for her life” from a tent in Memorial Park and his contention that, as a member of the PSB, he was prevented from calling 911 — again, a contention that is categorically false.
In his motion, Montpellier ignores these instances and instead focused on a conversation that occurred between Vagnini and Leduc after a Jan. 25 council meeting, during which time Leduc says the Ward 2 councillor threatened his life.
Council may have voted to remove Vagnini on Feb. 8, but the motion to oust him was moved during the Jan. 25 council meeting — before Vagnini made the alleged threat against Leduc, which occurred later that same night.
Yes, the Jan. 25 motion was introduced by Leduc and, yes, he and Vagnini were in the midst of an embarrassing public dispute at the time, but neither of those facts matter as much as Montpellier seems to believe they do.
The motion may have been moved by Leduc, but it was supported by a very comfortable majority of council. There is no reason to think they would support such a motion simply as a favour to Leduc.
No, council was right to remove Vagnini for wilfully spreading false information as an elected official and for, apparently, not knowing 911 is an apolitical service that anyone can use.
As Cormier rightly pointed out in response to Montpellier’s motion, councillors are appointed to the PSB and other outside boards by council itself and they serve on those boards “at the pleasure” of council, meaning council as a whole is well within its rights to appoint or remove them as they see fit.
“This motion should be defeated on its face because technically speaking there’s no place for it to go,” Cormier said. “To whom do you refer this investigation … to what authority, to what governing body, and to what purpose, to what end? To somehow tell this duly elected council to reverse a decision [we] made lawfully, a decision [we] made in compliance with the Municipal Act and in compliance with our own procedure bylaw?”
But the crux of Cormier’s remarks occurred, fittingly, as he was drawing to a close. In just a few short sentences and without singling anyone out, the councillor laid out what I think many of us who pay attention to council have been thinking as we’ve witnessed the antics of some of our elected officials.
And he pulled no punches.
“I have absolutely nothing personal against any of the colleagues I share this great chamber with, but when things get this ridiculous, when we can’t grow up and live up to the oaths of office that we took … to play it out through the press and in this chamber, it does none of us any good. It does our city no good. It does the institution that we’re here to represent no good.”
Exactly, councillor, exactly.
Mark Gentili is the editor of Sudbury.com.