Mayor John Higham took the unusual step Tuesday of apologizing to the citizens of Sackville, municipal councillors and town staff for his failure to correct what he termed fabrications, falsehoods and libellous statements in relation to Phase II of the $2.9 million Lorne Street flood control project.
During a report to council that lasted just over nine minutes, the mayor singled out two letters to the editor published by the Sackville Tribune-Post more than a year ago as well as an e-mail sent directly to town council.
He said one letter to the editor grossly inflated the amounts the town paid to purchase property for the flood control project while the other accused Jamie Burke, the town’s senior manager of corporate projects, of rudely interrupting a discussion outside the council chambers between two residents and a consultant from Crandall Engineering, the firm overseeing the flood control project.
As reported by Warktimes, residents Percy Best and Merlin Estabrooks were talking with Pierre Plourde of Crandall Engineering in September 2018 when Burke came out of the council chambers and apparently told them to stop unless they were willing to pay for the consultant’s time.
At the next meeting of council, Estabrooks demanded an apology from Burke for his “rude” behaviour. To read my report on what was said at that meeting, click here.
Mayor apologizes to Burke
During Tuesday’s meeting, Higham said an investigation that included interviews with all four participants as well as the viewing of surveillance video showed that Burke had not acted rudely.
“The tape showed a quiet, private, respectful conversation among the four,” the mayor said, adding that the exchange was “nothing remotely close to what was publicly alleged [in the letter to the editor] and the only possible conclusion was that this was fabricated.”
Higham did not say, however, that the surveillance footage, which Warktimes has seen, did not include sound and he also did not say why Burke joined the conversation that Best and Estabrooks were having with Plourde.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Burke is not here,” the mayor said, “but my apologies to Mr. Burke, in particular, who had to go through that, but also to the community who should have known that this was fabricated and false.”
E-mail to council
The mayor then referred to an e-mail sent directly to council that he said alleged that the provincial department of transportation and infrastructure (DTI) “had a detailed alternative for flooding in town that was far cheaper and more effective than the town’s plans.”
He was apparently referring to criticisms that council has heard from Percy Best, Merlin Estabrooks and Keith Carter who, at various times, have advocated deepening drainage ditches across the marshes to carry flood water to an aboiteau behind the Armtec plant or toward Carters Brook in West Sackville instead of constructing expensive drainage ponds east of Lorne Street with walking trails around them.
The mayor said the e-mail that council received alleged that town staff and Crandall Engineering had colluded to avoid the cheaper plan simply to drive up consultants’ fees paid by the town.
He said he arranged meetings with the deputy minister at DTI as well as senior staff who assured him that they fully supported the town’s plan.
Higham said he asked a senior member of the DTI dike section staff to go through the e-mail.
“He was simply astounded by what was in the claims,” Higham said, adding that no one at DTI had ever suggested an alternative plan.
“In other words, another complete and utter fabrication,” the mayor said. “There is no alternative at DTI, it does not exist and never has,” he added.
“This one was a little more difficult dealing with because I thought there had been some slanderous statements made about some individuals, but the advice was, ‘you know what, that’s tough, the town can’t do anything [and] any individual who feels they were libelled or slandered has to go to court by themselves,” Higham said, suggesting that with the advent of social media, people can get away with making false and slanderous statements.
Earlier, he also referred to Councillor Andrew Black’s plea that citizens not fall into “the swampy mire of news blogs, improperly moderated social media sites or non-town affiliated Facebook pages that thrive on conjecture, misinformation, populist opinion and falsehoods.”
Higham said that before social media, public commentary was moderated by a free press and by respect for office holders striving to do their best for the community as well as by personal responsibility.
The mayor said he has always believed in free speech even if it’s not based on facts. He suggested that’s one of the reasons he did not correct the record when the letters to the editor appeared or council received the e-mail.
He added that he also believed erroneously that people making false or fabricated allegations would correct the record on their own.
“I’ve tried that for three years and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “So, I apologize for being naive and for not acting. I apologize to staff. I apologize to council and I apologize to the community. In the short time left in this mandate, I will be firmer and stronger,” Higham concluded.
Later, during the public question period, Higham was asked why he decided to apologize now when the incidents he described go back over a long period.
“Is there something that triggered this tonight?” I asked.
“No, I think it’s the cumulative of all of those events,” he replied. ‘They have never been addressed by the authors; there’s been no recanting despite the knowledge that some things are completely incorrect and false and the impacts on our staff are continuing. So I thought it’s time for me to step up and play the role that I should play.”
When I asked whether his comment about the “short time left in this mandate,” meant he’s not planning to run again, Higham replied: “I haven’t made a decision what I’m going to do, no.”
To listen to my exchange with Mayor Higham, click on the media player below: