MONTREAL — City councillor Michael Applebaum is now in charge of Montreal’s $4.2-billion annual budget and its 23,000 employees.
The Côte des Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough mayor is the second-most powerful person at city hall since his appointment as chair of the executive committee by Mayor Gérald Tremblay last month.
The embattled Tremblay is entrusting critical responsibilities to his lieutenant at a time when the administration is going to be under investigation by the province’s anti-corruption squad after yet another scandal.
Applebaum replaces Claude Dauphin, who resigned after internal espionage involving top bureaucrats came to light.
The unflappable Applebaum is only the second Jew and one of very few anglophones to have held the number 2 position. The first was the late Michael Fainstat, who chaired the executive from 1986-90. The chairmanship of the 10-member executive committee has traditionally been a job with far more influence than, for example, deputy premier or deputy prime minister.
Applebaum said his task over the next two years is to shave $250 million off the city’s budget by increasing efficiency without raising taxes by more than 2.5 per cent, or no higher than the rate of inflation.
He shrugs off the problems faced by the Tremblay administration, suggesting they are overblown by the media. He is not concerned that it reflects on him personally. “When you are in politics, you have to look at the big picture, and that’s providing services to the people.
“Our books are open at any time. The province can have access to any documents.”
Applebaum never thought he would be a politician. His involvement with municipal affairs started in 1993 when the city, then under Mayor Jean Doré, decided it would not put up the outdoor rink in MacDonald Park in Snowdon that winter. Applebaum, a young father of three children living across the street on Earnscliffe Avenue, and his neighbours were incensed.
Applebaum led the fight against city hall, reaching a compromise that the boards would be installed, but he and other volunteers would help the city save money by keeping it flooded and shovelled, and even open and close the chalet themselves. Busy running a number of small businesses, including the family shoe store on Notre Dame Street from the time he was in his teens, Applebaum had shown no interest in politics. But the experience convinced him to run for city council in 1994.
At age 31, he was first elected on the opposition slate headed by former justice minister Jérôme Choquette in Fainstat’s former district, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce – by 31 votes. Four years later, he was re-elected with a convincing majority on former police chief Jacques Duscheneau’s slate. In 2002, on Gérald Tremblay’s Union Montréal ticket, he was finally sitting on the governing side.
Applebaum was immediately tapped for extra duties, first as an associate executive committee member and then, in 2005, as president of the commission on transport, the environment and infrastructure.
In January 2009, he was named to the executive committee, and for a time he held the sports and recreation portfolio, and later became vice-chair. In 2005, he was first elected as mayor of Côte des Neiges-NDG, the largest of the boroughs with a population of 170,000, although he had presided over the borough since the municipal merger.
After relinquishing his businesses as his political role increased, Applebaum became a real estate agent.
“I took the real estate course because I had a family to support. A councillor’s salary at the time was just $24,000… I was good at it. In my first year, I sold 48 properties, which was the second-highest in that office. It’s a question of being focused,” he said.
Critics have questioned how Applebaum, with no professional background in finance or administration, could be handed so much responsibility now. Applebaum believes he was chosen by Tremblay in large part because of what he has accomplished in his borough. He cited the building or revamping of community and sports centres, libraries, parks and social housing. He increased the borough’s budget from $52 million to $69 million, turning in surpluses annually without imposing local tax assessments.
“The mayor wants things in order. He wants me to take control of services and run them properly. I think the mayor wants me to manage the city the same way I’ve done in the borough,” he said.
He makes no apology for his perceived lack of qualifications. “I have the core values, family values. I worked with my father in a business that was 85 years old. I started my own clothing store when I was 18, and several other types of businesses. A lot of people who are very strong in business don’t have any special background.
“I think if you are intelligent, can grasp the issues and have good people around you, that is what counts.”
Also under his domain are urban planning, municipal real estate and the computer system.
Applebaum said he is proud of being Jewish and it has never been an issue in his public life. He said he is conscious of Jewish values such as being a good family man, working hard, volunteering and performing daily mitzvot.
The two other Montreal Jewish city councillors, also from Côte des Neiges-NDG, also hold responsible jobs. Veteran Marvin Rotrand is leader of the majority, and Lionel Perez is vice-president of the commission evaluating city contracts.