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.