05/10/2013 02:40 EDT | Updated 07/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec mayors worry about fallout from Vaillancourt arrest

Mayors from across Quebec say the arrest of former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt taints all municipal politicians

Talk of the high-profile arrest of the former mayor, along with 36 others, filled the corridors at the annual meeting of the Union of Quebec Municipalities in Montreal this morning.

"It casts all municipal politicians in a bad light," said Guy Richard, the mayor of Louiseville in the Mauricie region. He added that most elected politicians work relentlessly to serve their citizens.

The mayor of Rivière Rouge, a small municipality in the Laurentians, Déborah Bélanger, praised the Charbonneau corruption commission and UPAC, the provincial anti-corruption unit.

But Bélanger said the reputations of elected politicians are taking a hit.

"It's a sad time for us municipal people. But, I think in a way, justice has to do what it has to do."

The president of the Union of Quebec Municipalities, Rimouski Mayor Éric Forest, said it's clear that municipal leaders now have to "build a future on a foundation of transparency, integrity, accountability, and re-establish lines of trust between elected politicians (municipal, provincial and federal) and our citizens."

UMQ shoulders some blame: Trent

"It's going to be more and more difficult to get good people to run municipally, when you have such a contaminated terrain," said Westmount Mayor Peter Trent.

However, Trent said the UMQ deserves some of the blame for failing to compel Vaillancourt to step down from its board three years ago, as Hydro-Québec did, after it was alleged the then-Laval mayor had tried to bribe one-time justice minister and PQ MNA for Laval-des-Rapides, Serge Ménard.

Trent quit his executive position with the UMQ when Vaillancourt refused to give up his position.

"Nobody forced him, so I wind up leaving myself," Trent said, adding he's not sure how much attitudes have changed within the organization since that time.

"I would like a statement from the UMQ in effect saying when there are serious accusations against any member — be it me or anybody else — we should step aside until our name is cleared."

UPAC snags 37 in Thursday's sweep

UPAC investigators arrested 37 people in a provincewide sweep yesterday. The charges laid ranged from fraud and breach of trust to gangsterism.

The 72-year-old Vaillancourt, who served for 23 years as Laval's mayor, told reporters after his court appearance yesterday that he is pleading not guilty.

The Union of Quebec Municipalities was founded in 1919 and represents communities of every size and from every region in Quebec, totaling about five million Quebecers.