Montreal's mayor has resigned in the midst of a corruption scandal, becoming the highest-profile political casualty of the controversies currently rocking Quebec.
Gerald Tremblay said he had done nothing wrong but was stepping aside for the greater good of a city that is now politically paralyzed. Large construction contracts have been frozen and even the municipal budget has had to be rewritten in recent days.
"I cannot help anymore, given the circumstances," Tremblay said in a solemn resignation announcement late Monday at city hall.
The 70-year-old mayor held onto office just long enough to delay an election to replace him — which would have been triggered had he resigned only a few days earlier.
Tremblay avoided the public eye last week and took two days off work. Because he left after Nov. 3, one year before the next scheduled election, provincial law says he can now be replaced with an interim mayor chosen by the city council that is controlled by his scandal-plagued party.
He insisted he was unaware of corruption in his administration and only learned about it after the fact, saying Monday that he felt betrayed by the people who had abused his trust.
Tremblay cast himself as a victim of wrongdoing.
"My father always told me not to go into politics because it was dirty and people would destroy me," Tremblay said, adding that his love of Quebec and Montreal drew him to provincial and municipal politics over a 25-year career.
"I dedicated myself fully to the success of Montreal — with Judeo-Christian values of charity, solidarity, integrity, respect, openness."
Monday's announcement came after years of scandal that, over time, inched uncomfortably close to the mayor. Tremblay's onetime closest associates have either been slapped with criminal charges or been accused of corruption at an ongoing inquiry.
The latest, sharpest blow came last week: a witness at the inquiry said Tremblay was not only aware of illegal financing within his political party but was indifferent to it.
This was after the mayor had spent more than three years telling Montrealers that he'd been unaware of any corruption within his party or administration.
In making his resignation announcement, Tremblay denied that the 2004 meeting ever even happened. He said other recent allegations against him have been motivated by "hidden agendas" that would be exposed someday.
"That meeting never took place. Those allegations are false," Tremblay said of the testimony from former aide Martin Dumont, who said the mayor got up and left the room during a 2004 meeting the moment illegal party financing came up.
"I am going through a period of unbearable injustice... One day, justice will be done."
True or not, the latest allegation from his former party worker, in testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry, was incendiary enough to torch his administration. There had already been calls for his resignation. Now he found himself suddenly struggling to pass a budget.
Within only two days last week, his administration was forced to back down from a budget that had included property-tax hikes.
The tax increase had caused enough of a backlash that even the provincial government weighed in on it. The PQ government echoed the sentiments of angry citizens who fumed at the idea of having to pay more to an administration whose legitimacy had been so tarnished.
Amid the outcry, Tremblay decided to take a short break last week. He skipped work for two days and cancelled a pair of public appearances. The timing of his no-show was politically significant.
If Tremblay had quit before Nov. 3, one year ahead of the 2013 municipal election, it would have triggered an early mayoral vote. A resignation less than one year before an election, under Quebec law, means city council can pick a replacement. Tremblay's party controls council.
He turned 70 in September.
A lawyer by trade, he was called to the Quebec Bar in 1970. He also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.
A former Quebec provincial politician, Tremblay was elected to the provincial legislature as a Liberal in 1989 and he served as industry minister until 1994.
His entry into municipal politics was propelled a decade ago by the last Parti Quebecois government's plan to merge the island of Montreal into one megacity.
The plan was, ironically, led by his current adversary at city hall, Louise Harel, who was the provincial municipal-affairs minister.
Tremblay harnessed the angst and anger over the plan, getting overwhelming support from suburban and anglophone voters and sweeping to power in 2001.
He was re-elected in 2005 and again in 2009 for his third term as mayor. Less than 40 per cent of Montrealers bothered to vote last time. Allegations had already begun surfacing about irregularities in the awarding of public contracts and illegal political financing.
Tremblay survived the vote, partly because the main opposition party led by Harel dealt with controversies of its own.
He was contrite following his win.
"I want Montrealers to know that I know the mandate they've given me comes with great responsibility," Tremblay said following his narrow 2009 victory. "I'm aware that the confidence of Montrealers has been put to the test."
Photo: Canadian Press