Montreal and the Applebaum arrest: From bad to worse to ’What next?’

Martin Patriquin explains why the arrest of interim mayor Michael Applebaum is just one of the city’s problems
Martin Patriquin
Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum speaks to reporters at a news conference at City Hall in Montreal Friday, February 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

Michael Applebaum’s appointment as interim mayor of Montreal was an act of desperation. The longtime city councillor took the job in the wake of Gerald Tremblay’s resignation last November, thanks largely to his ability to lobby, cajole, manoeuvre and otherwise convince his municipal colleagues (though not a skeptical public, as his appointment wasn’t put to a vote) that he was the man to lead the country’s second-largest city out of a morass of institutional corruption. This corruption—allegedly involving, notably but certainly not exclusively, former Chairman of the Executive Committee Frank Zampino—felled Tremblay; Applebaum seemed to draw strength in the fight against it. “I will be your eyes and ears, and will do everything to regain what was stolen from you, to protect you from anyone who tries to take advantage of you.” Things could only get better, Applebaum seemed to suggest, if only because they couldn’t get  worse.

Applebaum’s arrest this morning at his residence in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood by members of UPAC, Quebec’s anti-corruption task force, is a stark repudiation of this sentiment. It’s the stuff of satire and overwrought police dramas: the interim mayor appointed because the last one had a studied ignorance of the corruption rampant within his administration was himself hauled out of bed at 6 a.m. and arrested on corruption charges. And while the charges have yet to be proven, it seems Montreal—and Quebec in general—keeps finding a new bottom to the barrel.

Clearly, something was coming down the pipe. At a function honouring Montreal’s Filipino community this past Saturday, less than 48 hours before his arrest, Applebaum didn’t seem his usual ebullient self. He gave what some categorized as a rambling, distracted speech. “Something was off,” a source told Maclean’s of the mayor’s performance. “The man who manoeuvered himself into the mayor’s chair wasn’t on display.” Already, UPAC had twice visited his offices. The first time, nearly three months to the day after he was sworn in, police locked down Montreal’s city hall. In May, UPAC targeted the borough offices of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where Applebaum served as mayor for 10 years, as well as the offices of Union Montreal, Applebaum’s party until it was dissolved last November.

Each time, Applebaum issued a similar statement. “I am not under investigation, I am here to collaborate,” he said after the February city hall raid. These statements were invariably accompanied with Applebaum’s coy smile—as though the interim mayor saw the grim humour in having to say such things on a regular basis. Even this morning as he sat in the back of the police car on his way to be charged with 14 counts of fraud, breach of trust, conspiracy and municipal corruption, reportedly tied to a zoning change done for developer and alleged mafioso Tony Magi in 2004, Applebaum was wearing that little smile.

There’s another interesting bit in the Applebaum saga. Also arrested today was erstwhile city councillor Saulie Zajdel, the Conservative Party candidate in the 2011 election. Zajdel ran against Irwin Cotler in the Montreal riding of Mont Royal in an often ugly campaign: the Conservatives pamphleted the sizeably Jewish neighbourhood with campaign literature questioning the Liberal’s commitment to Israel. Cotler’s wife, Ariela, his campaign manager, says she fielded complaints from people who received calls on the Sabbath purportedly from the Liberal Party of Canada. At the time, Conservative Party official Fred DeLorey called the charges “nothing more than baseless smears from the opposition.”

After he lost the election, Zajdel began work for the government as a “regional advisor to the Minister of Canadian Heritage,” only to resign in April 2012. Zajdel has nonetheless remained very active in the Mont-Royal riding. Sources say he was expected to run again in the next election. (“I have no idea” if Zajdel was going to run, Conservative Fred DeLorey told Maclean’s today. “The new boundaries aren’t finalized and we haven’t started the nomination process.”)

Not surprisingly, Montreal’s opposition leader Louise Harel has called for Applebaum’s resignation and the appointment of another interim mayor within 30 days. Should this occur, the interim mayor would presumably serve until the province-wide municipal elections in November—if he or she lasts that long, of course. Péquiste minister Jean-François Lisée, who supported Applebaum in the past, also called for the interim mayor’s resignation. In yet another indication of Montreal’s barrel-scraping woes, former executive committee member Alan DeSousa told La Presse the city shouldn’t be put into receivership because “Montreal is a solid institution where there are still honest and credible people at municipal council who can do the work.”

This was an apparent dig at Laval, Quebec’s third largest city, which the Quebec government placed under guardianship after testimony confirming how every member of the city’s municipal council (save for one) was effectively laundering money for Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt. Yet putting Montreal under receivership, thereby rendering toothless the mayor and council, wouldn’t do much good, and not for DeSousa’s noble reasoning. Even without guardianship, the power of the mayor and council is already drastically reduced, thanks to Montreal’s radically decentralized government structure. As I wrote in 2009, the city has 105 elected representatives—more than Toronto’s 45 and New York City’s 51 combined. The city, “a Swiss-cheese mess” according to historian political scientist and urbanist Harold Chorney, is extremely hard to govern; Michael Applebaum, Montreal mayor, couldn’t have said bupkis about the allegedly dodgy zoning change that Michael Applebaum, borough mayor, allegedly did for businessman Tony Magi in 2004. Zoning changes, like the prototypical municipal issues such as garbage collection and snow removal, are determined at borough level.

Mayors come and go, some via election, others in the back of police cars. Yet in the scheme of things Applebaum’s arrest is just the window dressing of Montreal’s shabby storefront; the real problems go much deeper. We have yet to reach the bottom of the barrel.