In a marathon meeting Monday night that lasted almost three-and-a-half hours, Sackville Town Council discussed and voted on a wide range of issues including the proposal to spend $32,775 installing a third set of traffic lights on Main Street.
In the end, only Councillors Bill Evans and Andrew Black voted in favour of installing the traffic signals at the crosswalk where hundreds of Mount Allison students cross Main Street several times a day to and from student residences and the Jennings Dining Hall.
Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken and Councillors Michael Tower, Shawn Mesheau, Joyce O’Neil, Allison Butcher and Bruce Phinney voted against installing the lights.
When council discussed the issue last week, the majority seemed to feel that traffic lights would not be effective, with Deputy Mayor Aiken and Councillor O’Neil favouring the hiring of crossing guards as recommended in a comprehensive study the town received in 2006.
After Monday’s meeting, Mayor Higham had the following response when Warktimes asked what happens now, given the safety concerns that have been outlined in various studies over the years:
“I don’t know what the answer to that will be,” the mayor said. “I think you’re correct that it will be an ongoing study, an ongoing relationship with Mount Allison and it will continue to be raised as to what the risk levels are and what the use is and what those other options might be.”
Mount Allison issued the following written statement after Monday’s vote:
The University values its strong relationship with Town staff and Council. Due to the nature of our close relationship, staff from both our organizations work together on many projects on an ongoing basis. The University recognizes that streets and crosswalks around campus are particularly busy with pedestrian traffic given the nature of our pedestrian campus. The University will continue work with the Town to discuss and monitor the situation. Crosswalks fall under municipal jurisdiction and as such the Town has every right to review and decide what resources they choose to put in place for any specific location. The University recognizes and appreciates the Town’s efforts in recent years to improve traffic control technology at other busy crosswalks on Main Street.
Meantime, town council gave final approval Monday night to a bylaw change that permits small marijuana growing operations in agricultural zones.
Council was responding to an application from Danny Fillmore and Sari Weinberg who are planning to grow organic cannabis in a 2,150 square-foot greenhouse on their property in Middle Sackville.
There were no objections to changing the town’s zoning bylaw when council held a public hearing on the matter in June.
“I am not a fan of cannabis,” Councillor Bill Evans said just before Monday’s vote. But he added that his personal opinion was not relevant to the execution of his responsibilities as a councillor.
“My support for this motion doesn’t reflect support for, nor opposition to, the production or consumption of cannabis, but simply a recognition of the fact that both activities are now legal,” Evans said.
Only Councillor Phinney voted against amending the zoning bylaw.
“We’re very happy with this first step,” Sari Weinberg said later, “overcoming this first hurdle.”
She added that the next step will involve building the greenhouse and then applying for a federal growing licence from Health Canada.
Closed door council meetings
In response to a question during Monday’s meeting about the recent series of articles in the Irving-owned newspapers (Brunswick News) detailing the frequency of closed or in-camera municipal council meetings in the province, Mayor Higham said town staff have been asked to review the criteria for such meetings.
Under provincial legislation, municipal councils can hold meetings that are closed to the public when dealing with legal or police matters, confidential information about staff, or the details of financial contracts and property transactions.
According to Brunswick News, many municipalities hold as many closed, in-camera meetings as ones that are open to the public.
A Warktimes analysis shows that during 15 public Sackville Town Council meetings held so far this year (January 14 to August 12), there were 14 closed or in-camera sessions. In addition, there was one separate in-camera meeting.
The Sackville clerk’s office does not count in-camera sessions that are held during public meetings, so its figures show only one in-camera meeting this year. But the clerk does measure total hours held in public (29.5) compared to the hours held in camera (8.25), although those hours do not include four fairly lengthy closed-door council briefings this year from the RCMP.
During the question period after last Monday’s meeting, I led off press questioning by asking why there aren’t more public briefings from the RCMP.
Mayor Higham responded that years ago, the RCMP did report publicly to council, but the police recommended closed-door meetings to report on operational matters, strategies of crime prevention and despatching.
“What we had in the past was the RCMP say, ‘We’re not comfortable answering those questions here,'” the mayor added. “‘We are more comfortable having that kind of specific operational and tactical questions in camera and that is the nature of that discussion.'”
Lack of public information at council meetings
Later, Mayor Higham and CAO Phil Handrahan promised to review the town’s practice of withholding background information from the public during the Special Council meetings that are held on the first Monday of every month. As a general rule, council discusses current issues at such meetings, but does not vote on them until its regular meeting a week later when background documents are usually provided to the public.
I pointed out that councillors often refer to this background information during Special Meetings, including contracts and tenders that are under consideration, but that members of the public sitting in the audience cannot see the documents.
“We frequently, as members of the public, do not have access to the documents that you are reading and that you are discussing and that form the basis for your decisions,” I said. “And so I consider many of those things, like Special Council meetings, to be partially closed meetings too because there’s not full information there available to the public on what is being discussed.”
Marketing proposal not made public
At Monday’s regular meeting, councillors were being asked to approve a $15,000 proposal from the Moncton communications firm Portfolio — a proposal for improving the town’s plans for marketing and branding itself as a desirable place to visit, live, work and do business.
Staff was recommending that council approve the proposal, but councillors voted to defer their decision until September 9th to give them more time to consider it.
While councillors have a copy of the proposal, it was not made available to the public. Jamie Burke, Senior Manager of Corporate Projects, indicated the Portfolio document won’t be released to the public until after council approves it in September.
“A submission related to a tender and/or RFP [Request for Proposals] isn’t information that we would typically release publically (sic), especially before a motion is awarded,” Burke wrote in an e-mail.