Sackville mayor defends secret ballot vote for deputy, but says he won’t use that method again

Mayor John Higham

Sackville Mayor John Higham says it was his choice to conduct the election of the deputy mayor by secret ballot at town council’s last meeting, but adds he won’t use that method again.

“I’m concerned about the appearance of a lack of transparency,” Higham said Friday during a telephone interview with The New Wark Times.

The mayor was reacting to comments from Mount Allison Politics Professor Geoff Martin who says New Brunswick’s Municipalities Act appears to prohibit secret ballot voting.

“I don’t see any issue with what we have done,” Higham said, adding that Sackville has followed balloting provisions in Robert’s Rules of Order for electing deputy mayors since 2002.

Robert’s Rules allow for secret balloting in the election of an organization’s officers.

The Municipalities Act requires councils to elect a deputy mayor every year, but Higham said it does not specify how the election should be held and municipalities across the province use a wide variety of methods.

He added that Sackville Town Council will reconsider how it elects its deputy mayor after the new Municipalities Act takes effect in January.

He said that in the meantime, council will stand by this year’s secret ballot vote that resulted in the election of Ron Aiken as deputy mayor after Higham himself cast a public, tie-breaking vote. Four councillors had cast secret ballots for Aiken, while the other four had voted for Councillor Bill Evans.

Geoff Martin, a former councillor and deputy mayor, has called on council to conduct the vote again — this time with a public declaration from each councillor. Or, he says, at the very least, council should ask the town solicitor to explain at its next meeting how and why the secret ballot procedure was legal.

But the mayor said he stands by this year’s secret ballot vote and sees no need to change it.

“I don’t see why we would switch that at this point,” he added.

Posted in Town of Sackville | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

So, does Sackville have a deputy mayor…or not?

Mt. A. politics professor Geoff Martin

A Mount Allison politics professor who specializes in municipal affairs says the way in which Councillor Ron Aiken was elected as the town’s deputy mayor last week appears to violate the New Brunswick Municipalities Act.

Professor Geoff Martin, who himself served as a Sackville Town Councillor from 1998 to 2004 and for a time as deputy mayor, says the Municipalities Act clearly states that local governments can’t use secret voting methods to make decisions.

Last week’s vote for deputy mayor was conducted by secret ballot, with Mayor Higham casting a public tie-breaking vote in favour of Ron Aiken over Councillor Bill Evans.

“The language of the [Municipalities] Act essentially says that any action that the council takes, any vote that happens at a meeting has to be a public vote, it can’t be a secret ballot,” Martin says.

“I think when it comes to the spirit of openness in municipal government that this is one of many decisions that the eight members of council need to declare, one way or the other, what their preference is,” he adds.

Section 10.1(1) of the Municipalities Act reads:

Unless disqualified to vote by reason of interest or otherwise upon a by-law, resolution, motion or for any other purpose, each member present, including the mayor, shall announce his or her vote openly and individually, and the clerk shall record it, and no vote shall be taken by ballot or by any other method of secret voting, and every vote so taken is of no effect.

Professor Martin is calling on town council to re-do the vote in public at its next meeting to clear up any doubt about the legal status of the deputy mayor.

Or, he says, at the very least, council should ask the town solicitor to appear at the next meeting to explain to the public how and why the secret ballot vote was legal.

“I would be surprised if a solicitor would come and justify this,” Martin adds.

He says Sackville voters have the right to know how their councillors vote, especially on contentious matters. Martin also says doubts about the deputy mayor’s status could lead to legal challenges, if for example, the mayor is absent and the deputy mayor makes a controversial ruling at a council meeting.

Town clerk defends secret ballot

In an e-mail to The New Wark Times, Town Clerk Donna Beal says that public voting procedures outlined in the Municipalities Act apply only to motions, not to nominations and elections.

“In light of the fact that there is no clear process outlined as to procedures around conducting an election, the Town of Sackville follows the guidelines of Robert’s Rules of Order,” her e-mail states.

The book, Robert’s Rules in Plain English, says ballot voting “is primarily used to protect the voters’ rights to secrecy.”

Beal adds that the town has been following a secret ballot voting process in elections for deputy mayor whenever there has been an election for at least the last 10 years.

To read the Town Clerk’s email, click here.

Province won’t say

Marc André Chiasson, who speaks for the provincial department of environment and local government, says staff familiar with the Municipalities Act tell him that “it is not the responsibility of the department to interpret and enforce the Act.”

He adds that it’s up to municipalities to interpret the law and to follow their own Rules of Order.

To read Chiasson’s email, click here.

For his part, Geoff Martin says the Municipalities Act is legislation that local governments must abide by and the law is clear about the requirement for open voting in all decisions of council.

“As a law enforcing body, the municipality itself has to conform to the law,” he says adding that if Sackville Town Council refuses to hold another vote or ask its solicitor to explain why this one was legal, then any citizen could take the matter to the provincial ombudsman.

“The ombudsman does not have binding authority, but the ombudsman has quite a bit of influence and prestige,” Martin says.

“Once there is a decision of the ombudsman that, yes, this was a violation of the Municipalities Act, generally municipalities will heed that,” he adds.

To read Sackville’s Bylaw 251 outlining Town Council procedures including election of the deputy mayor, click here.

Posted in Town of Sackville | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Another chapter closes in demolition of Sackville United Church as Beliveau loses his appeal

Court of Appeal building, Fredericton

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal has upheld a lower court ruling that the Town of Sackville acted reasonably when it dismissed lawyer Louis Béliveau from his volunteer position on its municipal Heritage Board in January 2016.

In its written judgment released today, the Court of Appeal also upheld the $11,447.46 in court costs and photocopying fees that the lower court judge ordered Béliveau to pay and added another $2,500 in costs against him for the appeal.

Background

The case stemmed from the intense controversy surrounding the demolition of the Sackville United Church in September 2015.

Béliveau filed documents showing that in the months after Lafford Reality applied for a permit to demolish the church in August 2014, the Heritage Board wrestled with the issue before finally issuing the permit in March 2015.

Along the way, some Heritage Board members resigned while others, including Béliveau himself, clashed with town staff and accused the town of “blatant interference” in the board’s deliberations.

That prompted town council to hire Moncton lawyer Kathleen Lordon to investigate.

Her confidential report, issued privately to the town in September 2015, accused Béliveau of misconduct for testifying at an appeals tribunal on behalf of the community group trying to save the church after the Heritage Board had issued the demolition permit.

Today’s decision

In its unanimous decision, written by Madame Justice Kathleen Quigg, the Court of Appeal ruled that lower court judge, George Rideout, applied proper judicial standards in upholding Béliveau’s dismissal from the Heritage Board:

The Town of Sackville decided there was misconduct on Mr. Belliveau’s part. The judge agreed and found the Town’s actions, removing Mr. Béliveau from the Board, were reasonable.

Having regard to the application judge’s comprehensive reasons and his determination that the removal of Mr. Béliveau from the Heritage Commission was reasonable, I can find no justification to interfere. In fact, I am in substantial agreement with the essential features of the carefully considered reasons of the application judge.

Madame Justice Quigg also rejected Béliveau’s arguments that the lower court judge should not have imposed $9,000 in court costs against him:

At first glance, the costs awarded against Mr. Béliveau may appear to be on the high side but, considering this is a discretionary order made by the judge, we ought not interfere…The award was within the realm of the judicial exercise of his discretion.

Justice Quigg also dismissed Béliveau’s appeal against the $2,447.46 in disbursement fees, mainly to cover the town’s photocopying costs, that he has been ordered to pay. She ruled that the fees issue falls within the jurisdiction of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Moncton.

However, last October, when Béliveau attempted to appeal the disbursement fees in the lower court, a judge ruled he should take the matter up with the Court of Appeal.

To read my report on the Court of Appeal hearing in March, click here.

Posted in Town of Sackville | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Fundy tidal turbine finally retrieved for testing and repair

Retrieved turbine sitting in the cradle of the barge Scotia Tide. Photo by Tommy Strutz

Cape Sharp Tidal Inc. successfully retrieved its 1,000 tonne, OpenHydro tidal turbine today from the FORCE test site at Black Rock west of Parrsboro.

In an e-mail to The New Wark Times, Stacey Pineau, who speaks for the company, said the retrieval happened during a 70-minute tidal “window.”

She confirmed that earlier this week, divers managed to free the turbine from a mooring line that had become entangled in its base in mid-April when the company first tried to retrieve it.

She added that the turbine has been moved to nearby West Bay where it will be inspected, then prepared for transport to St. Marys Bay near Digby for underwater testing within the recovery frame of the Scotia Tide barge.

It’s not clear whether Cape Sharp has obtained approval from the provincial environment department for testing in a location other than its FORCE site.

Pineau says the turbine will eventually be moved to the harbour at Saint John, N.B. where it will undergo repairs to the electrical components in its Turbine Control Centre.

The company has previously said that it intends to deploy its second turbine at the FORCE site sometime this year. That turbine is now in Saint John.

UPDATE: Cape Sharp later cancelled its plans for further testing near Digby and moved the turbine directly to Saint John. It now says that after repairs and upgrades, the turbine will be re-deployed to the FORCE site and that a second turbine, now being stored at Saint John, will also be deployed this year.

Posted in Tidal Power | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tidal turbine recovery attempts disrupting lobster season, fisherman complains

Protesters talk to journalist after initial turbine deployment in November

Bay of Fundy lobster fisherman Mark Taylor says he’s increasingly frustrated over disruptive operations around the tidal turbine test site in the Minas Passage.

So far, he’s been forced to move his lobster traps several times to avoid damage as Cape Sharp Tidal Inc. continues its efforts to retrieve its 1,000-tonne turbine for testing in calmer waters and for repairs in Saint John, N.B.

Taylor says the company gave him six hours notice this afternoon that its ships, barges, tugboats and support vessels will be returning to the area tonight.

“They should be notifying us two weeks ahead of time, or at least a week,” Taylor said in a telephone interview with Warktimes.

“My boat just left here and they’re going out to get the rest of the traps out of the way. We moved some last night and we’re going to get the rest out there tonight,” he said adding, “We shouldn’t have to do this.”

Turbine retrieval not going smoothly

The company announced unexpectedly more than two months ago that it would be retrieving its OpenHydro turbine starting with the first available tidal window April 15 to 20 and then, about every two weeks after that.

But so far, it hasn’t been able to raise the turbine apparently because it’s entangled by an underwater line wrapped around its subsea base tubes.

Taylor says he’s been forced to move his 450 traps, each weighing 310 pounds, to avoid operations at the FORCE tidal testing site as well as in an area near Spencer’s Island where Cape Sharp had said it planned to move the turbine for further testing.

In an e-mail to Warktimes, the company says it still plans short-term testing away from the FORCE site once the turbine is retrieved, but it’s not clear where that testing might occur or whether Cape Sharp would be able to get approval from government authorities.

‘Force site only test site’

Weir fisherman Darren Porter, who has been a persistent critic of turbine deployment, said in an e-mail that Cape Sharp would need a crown land authorization to place the turbine elsewhere on the sea floor.

“The FORCE site is the only ‘test’ site,” he writes.

He notes, however, that the company might try to convince the news media and the public that the turbine could be tested by suspending it above the sea floor, but for the moment, testing plans seem to be on hold.

Meantime, Mark Taylor who’s been fishing out of Halls Harbour and Parrsboro for 35-years, says he lost a lot of traps in November when Cape Sharp initially deployed the turbine.

“We need more notice. They got to give us some respect…that’s all there is to it,” he says. “We’ve been there a long time and they’ve got to recognize that we do work there.”

Posted in Tidal Power | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Sackville council split in vote for deputy mayor

Ron Aiken, Sackville’s new deputy mayor

Mayor John Higham had to cast a tie-breaking vote last night in the annual election for Sackville’s deputy mayor.

“This is a very difficult situation to be in,” Higham said after four councillors cast secret ballots for Bill Evans while the other four voted for Ron Aiken.

Higham said he had checked the rules to see if he could “just flip a coin or something, but apparently that’s not allowed.”

After a suspenseful 12-second pause, Higham said, “I really have little to differentiate quite frankly and I will cast a vote in favour of Councillor Aiken.”

O’Neil bows out

Joyce O’Neil, who has served as the town’s deputy mayor for the last five years, had decided not to stand for re-election opening the way for last night’s contest.

“It’s been a journey and a half,” O’Neil told council. “Anyway, it’s time to take it a little easier.”

She received a round of applause from her council colleagues and thanks for her “time, effort and dedication,” from the mayor.

Higham pointed out that the job can be hectic with the deputy mayor being called on, sometimes at the last minute, to represent the town at events the mayor is unable to attend.

The deputy mayor also serves as an alternate member on the board of the Southeast Regional Service Commission which co-ordinates land-use planning as well as the collection and disposal of solid waste.

The deputy mayor’s position comes with yearly pay of $8,179, an increase of $921 over a councillor’s annual stipend of $7,258. (The mayor receives an annual stipend of $13,817.)

Council’s political divisions

Last night’s tie vote for Aiken and Evans illustrates political divisions on town council between long-time councillors and the newer ones, especially when it comes to contentious issues.

For example, first-term councillors Andrew Black, Allison Butcher and Megan Mitton voted with second-term councillor Bill Evans to approve the town’s five-year strategic plan last February while council veterans Ron Aiken, Joyce O’Neil, Bruce Phinney and Michael Tower voted against. In that case, Mayor Higham sided with the newer councillors breaking the tie in favour of adopting the strategic plan.

In May, the same division was evident when council voted on a bylaw allowing the town’s chief administrative officer to designate a successor during a temporary absence. Councillors Phinney, O’Neil and Aiken voted against while Councillors Black, Evans and Butcher voted in favour. (Councillors Tower and Mitton were away that night.) Once again, Mayor Higham broke the tie by voting with the newer councillors.

In February when council voted on a symbolic resolution opposing the Energy East pipeline, Councillors Evans, Black, Butcher and Mitton voted in favour while Councillors Aiken, O’Neil and Tower voted against. On that occasion, Councillor Phinney prevented a tie by voting with the newer councillors to oppose the pipeline.

Although last night’s vote for deputy mayor was by secret ballot, it seems likely that the newer councillors voted for Bill Evans, while the veterans supported Ron Aiken.

Posted in Town of Sackville | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Revenues up, expenses down, auditor gives thumbs up to Sackville’s finances

Auditor Andrew Boudreau

The Town of Sackville appears to be in sound financial shape according to the independent auditing firm Stevenson and Partners.

Auditor Andrew Boudreau told councillors at Monday’s meeting that the town’s revenues were above expectations in 2016 while expenses were below what was budgeted.

He said that as of December 31, the town had recorded a surplus of $787,359.

The full audit will not be released until council formally accepts it at its meeting next week, but Boudreau and Treasurer Michael Beal did give a general overview.

Here are some highlights:

  • The town had $1,547,000 in cash on hand on December 31 compared to $583,000 in 2015. Boudreau described it as “a nice healthy increase in your cash balance this year.”
  • The surplus of $787,359 included surpluses in the general operating fund ($64,316) and in the water and sewer operating fund ($21,083).
  • The town paid down its long-term debt in 2016 by $1,424,000. Total long-term debt on December 31 was $14,777,000. Boudreau noted that the town is well within the debt limits required by the province.
  • The reserve funds that the town uses to help finance bigger projects totalled $1,263,894 on December 31, an increase over the $1,066,730 total recorded in 2015. The reserves included $97,000 in the general operating account; $1,065,000 in general capital; $101,000 in utilities including water and sewer. Treasurer Beal noted that the general capital reserve will be depleted by the Lorne Street reconstruction project, “so we will have to look at replenishing that.” He added that the utilities reserve had increased by about $40,000 and that the town would continue to build that fund to finance future upgrades to the sewage lagoons.

Update on town tricycle

Danish bicycle for three

Also during Monday’s council meeting, town recreation manager Matt Pryde said he’d be seeking approval next week to purchase a $10,800 motorized tricycle from a firm in Denmark.

The “trishaw” would be used to give rides to elderly or disabled people. Council discussed purchasing it in April, but Pryde said the project got delayed after Copenhagen Cycles, which sells the machine, wanted full payment in advance before it would agree to ship it.

Now, the company and the town have agreed to a $5,000 advance payment subject to town council approval.

Pryde said the the trishaw would be paid for partly by using a $3,700 special needs donation that has been listed as an asset on the town’s books for more than 25 years. The rest of the money would come from various sources including $2,200 from the Sackville Hospital Foundation, $1,500 from the Sackville Rotary Club, $600 from the Drew Nursing Home and a provincial physical activity grant that the town will apply for.

Safety concerns

Deputy Mayor Joyce O’Neil said she would worry about safety.

“To me, it’s scary to think of this being out on the road,” she said, “because it’s going to be wider than a regular bike.”

When O’Neil asked if the tricycle would be used only on sidewalks, Pryde replied that the law requires such vehicles to operate on the road, but that it may be restricted to pre-determined routes such as on wider side streets and the rail trail in the Waterfowl Park.

“I could see it being a super ride, leaving the Drew and going down…into the Waterfowl Park and using the trail,” O’Neil said, “but when I think of downtown…I don’t know if I’d want to be in it.”

Our ‘cautious’ world

Councillor Andrew Black suggested that he sees such safety concerns as part of the “overly cautious world that we live in.”

He said that when he was young, everybody had bikes and there were full bike racks all over town.

“Now you just don’t see it anymore,” Black added. “People aren’t used to driving around bicycles anymore at all. They find it a nuisance and a problem on the street.”

He went on to say he strongly supports buying the tricycle and that letting the town know about it may inspire other people to get out on their bikes.

“We have a small town that could have tonnes of people out biking around from Point A to Point B very easily and I just hope that that happens,” Black said.

Posted in Town of Sackville, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments