The village of Ste-Pétronille, Que., is used to receiving attention from outsiders. Tourists flock to the hamlet at the tip of picturesque Orleans Island to see its French colonial architecture and enjoy views of the Quebec City skyline across the St. Lawrence River.

But since the hiring of its town manager, the allure of Ste-Pétronille has recently given way to intrigue. The resulting controversy has rocked the settlement of just over 1,000 residents and led the municipality to send threatening legal notices to almost one-tenth of residents — as well as the local newspaper — and issue a plea for the province to intervene.

"We would have preferred not to have to go there," Ste-Pétronille Mayor Jean Côté said of the legal notices in a Jan. 18 statement. "We had to act urgently to preserve the reputation of our employees and elected officials, and to ensure that we could do our jobs without fear of reprisal."

At least 97 people in Ste-Pétronille have received legal letters from the town, says François-Xavier Simard, a lawyer representing a group of residents. Many of them were signatories of a Dec. 11 petition asking the municipality to launch an investigation into the process that led to the hiring of town manager Nathalie Paquet. 

Several residents of the town have questioned the circumstances under which Paquet left a previous post in the Quebec municipality of Val-des-Lacs, citing an alleged letter from that town's mayor that petitioners say they obtained through an access-to-information request. 

The petition, viewed by The Canadian Press, asked whether Ste-Pétronille officials examined Paquet's job history and stated that the content of the letter from her former employer made her hiring "incomprehensible."

One resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the town, said the legal letter they received claimed that the information about Paquet acquired through the access-to-information request caused "irreparable damage" to her and the town.

The notice threatens legal action if the recipient does not cease efforts to obtain personal and confidential information about Paquet, or to engage in any "public intervention infringing on (her) private life and reputation."

A lawyer representing Ste-Pétronille also sent a notice to a local newspaper, Autour de l’Île, after its reporter and editor-in-chief Marc Cochrane attended a town council meeting during which residents pressed concerns about Paquet's hiring. The legal letter suggests that because the newspaper receives public subsidies, it shouldn't criticize town officials.

That notice states it is "unacceptable that the paper use public funds from local municipalities to publish articles with the goal of denigrating municipal employees." 

"It seems clear to us that it is preferable for the paper, its employees and administrators to not publish the article and to re-establish its relationship with the municipality than to take on a litigious situation that can still be avoided," the statement from the lawyer continues.

The Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, a non-profit that represents 1,600 journalists in the province, has denounced the notice, calling it an attempt at intimidation.

In an interview Friday, Cochrane said "it's deplorable" that the town is acting this way.

"It's surprising and it's a shame that freedom of expression, freedom of the press is flouted by this decision by the municipality."

Ste-Pétronille is now calling on Quebec's Municipal Affairs Department to launch an investigation into the municipality's hiring process in hopes of assuaging disgruntled citizens. Côté and the town council continue to defend Paquet.

"We are convinced that the decisions we have made over the past year, which have displeased some citizens, were the right ones," the mayor's Jan. 18 statement continues. "We are also convinced that the hiring process for our town manager, whose integrity is being unfairly attacked, was conducted rigorously and diligently."

As for the town's relationship with the newspaper, the mayor said Autour de l’Île will continue to receive the municipality's "full co-operation."

"Urgency guided swift action to protect our staff," Côté said. "We will be contacting the newspaper's management to discuss the situation and re-establish ties."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2024.