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Marc Cochrane, editor-in-chief of the Autour de l’Ile newspaper, in Quebec City, on Jan. 19.Mathieu Belanger/The Globe and Mail

A village near Quebec City has threatened to sue a local newspaper and cut its funding to prevent the publication of a story about the municipality’s general manager, who was fired from her previous job over misconduct allegations.

The village of Sainte-Pétronille has also threatened to sue nearly 100 members of the community who raised concerns about the hire at a municipal council meeting.

David Dusseault, a representative of Quebec’s Municipal Commission, said in an interview that the commission opened an investigation on Thursday after media reports about what happened.

Antoine La Rue, a lawyer with the firm Therrien Couture Joli-Coeur, sent the paper, Autour de l’Île, a letter on Jan. 8 objecting to the forthcoming article.

“We already have the mandate to take legal action against the journalists, the newspaper and its administrators in the event that the article is published despite our numerous warnings,” wrote Mr. La Rue in French.

“It is unacceptable that the newspaper uses public funds given to it by local municipalities to publish articles with the aim of denigrating municipal employees.”

Mr. La Rue sent the letter on behalf of Sainte-Pétronille, which has a population of just over 1,000 and is one of a handful of villages on the Île d’Orléans, an island in the St. Lawrence River renowned for its strawberry fields and local ciders.

“I’ve been working at the newspaper for almost 20 years. It’s the first time we’ve had a formal notice from a municipality,” said Autour de l’Île director Laure-Marie Vayssairat in an interview Wednesday. The monthly publication is run mostly by volunteer reporters and receives a little more than a quarter of its annual budget of about $200,000 from the regional municipal county, she said.

The legal threats from the Village came after editor-in-chief Marc Cochrane covered the Sainte-Pétronille municipal council meeting on Dec. 11, 2023.

In the story he prepared, Mr. Cochrane described how dozens of residents attended the meeting and used the question period to demand an investigation of the village’s general manager, Nathalie Paquet. Sainte-Pétronille Mayor Jean Côté defended her, according to the draft of Mr. Cochrane’s story, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The story was never published.

Two days after the council meeting, Mr. La Rue called the chair of the newspaper’s board, Brigitte Lachance, to convey the message later summarized in his Jan. 8 letter threatening a libel lawsuit. Ms. Lachance, who has since resigned from the board, decided not to publish the story in the December issue and to get legal advice, according to Ms. Vayssairat.

Ms. Vayssairat said the decision on whether to publish the story in the January issue was left to the editor-in-chief. In an interview, Mr. Cochrane said he decided, reluctantly, not to publish to avoid the risk of the paper being sued. Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil reported last Wednesday that 97 Sainte-Pétronille residents have also been threatened with libel suits.

Éric-Pierre Champagne, the president of Quebec’s Professional Federation of Journalists, said threatening the paper with a lawsuit amounts to intimidation. “It’s really a denial of democratic principles and transparency,” he said. “It’s completely unacceptable.”

Mr. Côté and other representatives from the Village of Sainte-Pétronille did not respond to requests to interview the Mayor or Ms. Paquet. The Mayor said in a news release Thursday that he would ask the Quebec Ministry of Municipal Affairs to “investigate to clarify the facts.” He again defended Ms. Paquet’s hiring and said the residents’ questions were a “smear campaign” against her.

Paul Kushner, the mayor of Val-des-Lacs, Que., where Ms. Paquet previously worked, sent her a letter in March, 2022, that was obtained by The Globe.

The letter, written in French, says the municipal council would fire Ms. Paquet after an internal investigation found several instances of “misconduct” and numerous ethical breaches. It adds that she showed “gross negligence” in failing to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid taxes as the general manager of that municipality. The details of the misconduct allegations have been redacted.

In the letter to Autour de l’Île, Mr. La Rue said: “This subject is of a private nature and should never have been discussed during a public meeting,” he wrote.

“The factual elements, comments, remarks, judgments and false insinuations and concerns reported by citizens about the general manager constitute defamatory remarks,” he added.

Similar letters were sent to the Sainte-Pétronille residents who wanted answers about Ms. Paquet. Their lawyer, François-Xavier Simard, said in an interview that the public meeting was a legitimate forum for such questions.

Élodie Masson, a spokesperson for Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest, said Thursday: “We are monitoring the situation closely, but it is important to respect the principle of municipal autonomy.” She encouraged all municipalities to “listen to the concerns of their citizens.”

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