MONTREAL — He’s the first kippah-wearing Jew to become mayor of a Montreal borough – the city’s largest – and the job lasts only another nine months.
But Lionel Perez is still intent on making a real difference in Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG).
Perez was acclaimed as interim mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-NDG two months ago, when Michael Applebaum left to become the city’s interim mayor after Gerald Tremblay resigned. Perez hopes to return to his previous position as councillor for the borough’s Darlington district – a position now vacant – when the next municipal election takes place in November.
Applebaum has been adamant that he has every intention of running for mayor again in Côte-des-Neiges-NDG.
But in an interview last week, Perez, 42, made clear that he is not there as a fill-in for Applebaum until election time.
Despite a more demanding workload compared to Darlington, Perez said he is being hands-on and proactive.
He also said his religious life would not interfere with his work as mayor of the huge borough, which is bounded by Mount Royal on the north, Outremont to the east, Ville-Marie and Westmount on the south-east and Cote St. Luc to the west.
It is also a hugely multicultural borough, with about half of the residents born outside of Canada.
“We have a population in this borough of 170,000 residents, and there is a lot to do,” said Perez, a fluently bilingual lawyer and father of four whose poise belied his scant three years in political office (he succeeded Saulie Zajdel in Darlington).
“This borough has five districts, and we need to be able to respond to the needs of the people. There needs to be transparency,” he said.
“I grew up in the community and have a certain sensibility that I think serves me well in understanding the needs of residents and community groups.
“I will always have an open door policy.”
Like Applebaum, Perez severed his ties with Tremblay’s Union Montreal party and ran independently as a means, he acknowledged, of distancing himself from the taint of corruption surrounding the city administration in the context of the Charbonneau Commission.
The resulting public cynicism with regard to politicians, Perez said, “is sad, but understandable.
“There have been a very troubling series of allegations,” he said, “but the city has announced a strict new ethics code.
“At the borough level, we have made it a point to have complete transparency. Council meetings are available online and all files are available on the borough [web] page.”
Perez declined to comment on what his plans would be if Applebaum changed his mind about running for Montreal mayor – it’s too “hypothetical,” he said – noting only that if that did happen, “different avenues would be explored and we would take the right decisions at that time.”
He was much more willing to recite the large agenda of issues, works and projects going on in his borough. They ranged from “core,” everyday residential concerns such as snow clearing and garbage collection, to recently revitalized parks, a new NDG intercultural library at Benny Farm, redevelopment of the Blue Bonnets site, and the Le Condo Triangle redevelopment in the Jean Talon/Namur area.
“It will transform the area,” Perez said.
Perez’s personal background likely prepared him well for a career in politics.
He was born and raised in the city by Sephardi immigrant parents from Morocco, attended Jewish parochial school, studied law at York University’s Osgoode Hall and the Université de Montréal, and was involved in Jewish community work at Jewish Family Services (now Agence Ometz), as well as at the Yeshivah Gedola Merkaz Hatorah.
Before entering politics, Perez founded an online business, corporationcentre.ca, described as a “Canadian legal document filing service” for individuals and businesses seeking to incorporate.
Perez said the most frustrating part of being borough mayor has been seeing how sometimes the “tremendous work” accomplished within the borough can be overshadowed by negative news or unmet expectations on the part of residents.
But that is compensated for by the great satisfaction he is getting in his work.
“I am enjoying it very much,” Perez said. “It is a challenge that I welcome.
“I get to deal with residents at a community level and to properly govern in the best interests of Côte-des-Neiges-NDG.”