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Montreal's new interim mayor is confident: Police don't need to worry about him

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MONTREAL - Montreal's new interim mayor is making what passes for a bold prediction these days for a politician in this city: he's confident his offices won't be targeted in any police raids.

Laurent Blanchard was named to the job Tuesday, making him the scandal-soaked city's third mayor in less than a year.

He will hold the job for only a few months, until the November municipal election.

The two-term city councillor was asked whether he feared that UPAC, Quebec's anti-corruption squad, might also come knocking at his borough offices.

"I don't worry about that," said Blanchard, a former community newspaper publisher.

"Absolutely not!"

An opposition politician at city hall agreed. Richard Bergeron, head of the Projet Montreal party, expressed confidence that "there are no nasty surprises to worry about" with Blanchard.

City council chose Blanchard in a close vote where he beat his two rivals by a score of 30-28-3. At his swearing-in ceremony, he promised Montrealers "integrity, stability and continuity."

The 60-year-old councillor, who had been head of the municipal executive body since last year, admitted it won't be an easy task to run Montreal after what's happened.

There's a bright side, however.

"It's only for four months," he quipped.

He said his priority will be to maintain the multi-party coalition that has been running the city in the leadup to the Nov. 3 municipal vote.

There were initially five candidates in the running to take over from Michael Applebaum, who stepped down as interim mayor after being arrested on corruption-related charges. Two dropped out before the vote.

Applebaum replaced Gerald Tremblay, who resigned in a different scandal. As he took over city hall last fall, Applebaum created a multi-party executive body and promised to keep a coalition administration in place.

Blanchard now says he will maintain that approach.

He said he will only seek re-election this fall as a city councillor. He represents a poorer-than-average area east of downtown and expressed pride Tuesday that his borough will produce a mayor — albeit temporarily.

He said he wants to help restore confidence in the city.

Blanchard pointed out that Moody's Investors Service recently maintained Montreal's Aa2 long-term credit rating, and he used that to argue that confidence in Montreal remains strong.

Moody's did announce last week that it would keep Montreal's credit rating, although it added that the rating remains on the lower end of Canadian cities.

In a release explaining its decision, the agency listed higher-than-average indebtedness as a concern but did not refer to corruption scandals.

Evidence at an ongoing corruption inquiry suggests the city significantly overpaid for construction work for years — while crooked companies colluded on bids and split their extra profits with corrupt bureaucrats, the ruling municipal party, and the Mafia.

The last elected mayor, Tremblay, resigned after a witness alleged he turned a blind eye to illegal political financing. Tremblay has denied the allegation and that same witness has since admitted to making up another part of his testimony.

However, the political damage was done.

Tremblay stepped aside and council picked Applebaum, who became Montreal's first Anglo mayor in 100 years. Trouble for the interim mayor began soon thereafter.

Applebaum's west-end borough offices were raided by investigators. He was arrested several months later and slapped with 14 criminal charges including fraud, in an alleged scheme involving bribes in exchange for construction permits.

Unlike nearby Laval, however, the city has not been placed under provincial trusteeship.

Part of the reason Montreal has been left to govern itself, according to the provincial government, is that the city has a functioning democracy with clashing political parties. That is in contrast with Laval, where a now-disgraced and dissolved party held every seat on council.

Harout Chitilian, 32, who lost to Blanchard by only two votes Tuesday, said the election results show that democracy is healthy at Montreal city council.

"It demonstrated again that we don't need trusteeship from the Quebec government," he told reporters.

"We can take care of business on our own in a respectful and transparent manner."

Chitilian was the city council speaker before he stepped aside to take a run at the interim mayor's seat. He said he will push to maintain stability at city hall, while admitting that anything can happen along the way.

"Life is full of surprises, but every time we have a situation out of the ordinary here, the elected officials have responded in a responsible fashion," Chitilian said.

Jane Cowell-Poitras, who placed a distant third in the latest vote, had served as acting mayor, filling in for both Tremblay and Applebaum after they resigned.

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