If he’s on furlough, why did the mayor of Woodstock participate in the county council debate?

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The beleaguered mayor of Woodstock, who faces sexual assault charges, has remained politically active while on leave, drawing the ire of the director of the London Abused Women’s Centre.

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Weeks after Deputy Mayor Connie Lauder temporarily took over as Woodstock City Council, Trevor Birtch attended and spoke at an Oxford County Council meeting last week.

“He remains the elected representative of the departmental council; he remains the elected mayor of Woodstock until he resigns or is disqualified under the Municipalities Act,” said Woodstock City Hall’s top official, David Creery.

Birtch, who is due in court May 2, is charged with assaulting a woman between June 1 and September 30, 2021, and sexually assaulting her with choking between December 10 and December 13, 2021.

“I understand the mayor hasn’t actually resigned or taken time off in a way that someone would take time off from work; he’s still here,” said Jennifer Dunn, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, who addressed Woodstock City Council at its March 17 meeting.

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A few weeks ago, Lauder took over as chair of the Woodstock council because Birtch asked him to “until further notice.”

“He’s taking time off,” Lauder told The Free Press at the time. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s innocent until proven guilty. There’s nothing else he has to reveal to me or any of us.

Dunn, who describes sexual assault “as the only serious crime that isn’t going down”, said she recommended more training for Woodstock council and contacting agencies in Woodstock or London for information and training on the impacts of sexual assault.

No one contacted her, she said.

Under Ontario’s Municipal Act, politicians facing criminal charges can remain in office even if found guilty. Only a prison sentence prevents a municipal politician from remaining in office. Under the Municipalities Act, the municipal council cannot do anything if a member is absent for less than three months.

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Most city councilors have remained silent since the charges were brought, including Lauder, on the advice of their attorney, she said. “We can’t say anything more. We will continue with our homework, as we have done before.

But Dunn said that by not talking about the charges, the board is “sweeping it under the rug.

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“At some point, women and girls need to know that they are supported by people who govern their city and that’s not happening,” she said. “The city council must also have a say.

“They are civil servants; they serve their constituents to ensure their city is safe.

Birtch, the first mayor elected in 2014, did not return a request for comment. He has not spoken publicly about the charges since they were made public by the London Free Press in early February.

Elected mayor of Woodstock in 2014 – defeating then mayor Pat Sobeski and former mayor Michael Harding – Birtch was re-elected in 2018, beating his challenger Shawn Shapton by nearly 1,800 votes.

A father of three, Birtch studied political science and business at Western University and worked as a financial analyst in Oxford County for 11 years before entering municipal politics, according to an online biography.

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