Allison Hanes: Dominique Ollivier has a credibility problem as budget chief

Just over a week from the city’s looming austerity budget, revelations about profligate spending when she was president of the OCPM are going to make a property tax hike harder for Montrealers to swallow.

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A $347 lunch of oysters that Dominique Ollivier charged to the public purse while in Paris a few years back is going to make a likely five per cent average property-tax hike that much harder to swallow for residents when she tables the city budget on Nov. 15.

For a dish best enjoyed raw, this indulgence has sure turned up the heat on Ollivier, chair of the city executive committee and Mayor Valérie Plante’s second-in-command.

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Ollivier should be busy figuring out how to absorb a deficit from the agglomeration council and fill a shortfall in the finances of public transit agencies without digging too deep into the pockets of Montreal taxpayers. Instead, she has been forced to offer a flurry of mea culpas about her profligate spending back when she was president of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal between 2014 and 2021. An investigative series in Le Journal de Montréal this week has left her credibility in tatters.

Conceding that the oysters — offered to her then-business associate and current OCPM secretary-general Guy Grenier to celebrate his birthday — were “not her best idea,” they are but one example of her penchant for lunch meetings at Montreal’s finest restaurants, often just a stone’s throw from the OCPM offices, and frequent travel to destinations like London, Paris, Australia and Mozambique.

Using access-to-information requests and examining municipal credit card reports, Le Journal’s investigation uncovered that the OCPM, with barely a dozen permanent employees, bills more for expenses than any city agency, including the fire department with its 2,700 workers. Between 2016 and 2019, Ollivier alone was reimbursed for $17,793 worth of meals. The OCPM’s $3-million annual budget is entirely funded by the city of Montreal.

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Many of the business trips were for lengthy durations, sometimes included family members (like Ollivier’s mom on one occasion), made stopovers in different cities to visit friends and seemed to have had little value to the operations of the OCPM — even according to cursory internal reports drafted to justify the travel.

Ollivier was frequently accompanied, at the lunch meetings as on the foreign junkets, by a close-knit bunch that included Grenier, Isabelle Beaulieu and former secretary-general Luc Doray.

After Ollivier jumped over to city politics in 2021 and Doray retired last January, Grenier and Beaulieu seem to have kept the gravy train running.

The duo racked up more recent expenses that include: $900 headphones; a $211 lunch at Ferrera; $498 for hockey tickets; and a trip to Brazil (where Grenier happened to be when the story broke and Beaulieu announced a moratorium on travel).

Opposition Ensemble Montréal has called for Ollivier to resign.

But Plante is standing by her right-hand woman. Though Ollivier didn’t do anything illegal, that doesn’t mean her spending habits were acceptable, the mayor tsk-tsked, setting a pretty low bar for accountability. However, Plante went on to defend Ollivier’s “integrity.”

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Ollivier, meanwhile, expressed regret at this week’s executive committee meeting that her past spending has eroded public confidence. But she hasn’t just undermined public trust, she has abused it with an ongoing lack of judgment.

This isn’t just about treating herself to a plate of overpriced delicacies in Paris. Ollivier’s track record is much more troubling than that.

She set the tone for extravagance at the OCPM and brought her own close collaborators, who clearly had similarly rich tastes, into the body’s ranks.

Ollivier and Grenier once ran a consulting firm together. When Ollivier left to lead the OCPM, she later recruited him. Grenier later “transferred” his share of the business to Beaulieu.

Ollivier named Beaulieu, a longtime friend from her days in the Parti Québécois, to the board of the OCPM during her mandate.

And although Ollivier should have excused herself due to a conflict of interest, she nevertheless voted on Beaulieu’s appointment to succeed her as president of the OCPM at city council. Ollivier told Le Journal de Montréal she didn’t intend to, that it was a slip-up. She also said she declared her conflict, although there is no evidence of it on the public record. Oops.

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Grenier is so ethically challenged, he responded himself to access-to-information requests about his own expenses, censoring most of the pertinent details — like whether alcohol was served.

Neither he nor Beaulieu saw fit to account for their use of public funds when reporters called repeatedly to question them. There’s even a videoclip of Beaulieu running into Grenier’s office saying “Help, Guy!” when an investigative journalist showed up with a camera.

To save her own skin, Ollivier, aided by the mayor, appears poised to throw her old associates under the bus. The city has ordered the auditor general to probe the OCPM’s expenses and make recommendation on its spending guidelines.

But Ollivier publicly wagging her finger at her former colleagues’ excesses finally nudged Beaulieu out of her stonewalling.

In an interview she finally gave to Le Journal to explain herself, Beaulieu claims she “inherited” a way of doing things from her predecessor. She also claimed that the OCPM has never had any policy on appropriate expenses and that Ollivier just told her trips and meals were roughly one per cent of the $3-million budget.

Well, if Ollivier is looking for some fat to trim as she balances Montreal’s books, the OCPM seems like a good place to start.

Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest suggested that the present leadership at the OCPM “reflect on their futures” with the organization.

Montrealers bracing for a tax hike may be hoping Ollivier ponders her own as budget chief.

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