It was a dramatic moment at Monday’s town council meeting when Sackville resident Merlin Estabrooks confronted Mayor John Higham during the public question period.
“I’d like to know why you called me a liar,” Estabrooks asked.
“You said that I made false statements, which would make me a liar and I’d like to know where you got your facts,” the former deputy mayor added.
“I never mentioned any names whatsoever, I never called anybody a liar,” Higham replied, referring to statements he made during a council meeting on November 12th when he apologized for not calling public attention to what he called a “fabricated event.”
The event he mentioned happened more than a year ago, on September 4, 2018, in the lobby outside the council chamber and was recorded by the town’s surveillance cameras.
Merlin Estabrooks and resident Percy Best were talking to Pierre Plourde, a consultant with Crandall Engineering, about the Lorne Street flood control project when town manager Jamie Burke came out of the council chamber and joined their conversation.
The surveillance video, which Warktimes has seen, does not include sound, but Estabrooks says that Burke interrupted their conversation to tell them they could not talk to Plourde unless they paid for his time.
Note: Estabrooks and Best have sharply criticized the Lorne Street project saying that instead of spending money on expensive water retention ponds, the town should rely on deeper ditches to carry storm water to an aboiteau behind the Armtec plant and across the marshes to the Carters Brook area in West Sackville.
Estabrooks calls for apology
Estabrooks demanded an apology from Burke at the next council meeting on September 10, 2018 describing his behaviour in interrupting the conversation as “very rude and ignorant.”
At that meeting, Higham defended Burke.
“I believe Mr. Burke was doing what he understood was his job,” he said. “The contractor was not supposed to be providing information about the specific contract except to council.”
The mayor suggested that since the consultant was billing for his time, the town would have to pay a lot of extra money if residents had the right to talk to him.
“We have 55-hundred people in this town,” Higham added, “if they all said, ‘I have the right to talk to that contractor,’ and they have the right to bill you, well, we’d have to double or triple the contract costs.”
Public reporting of incident
Both Warktimes and the Sackville Tribune-Post reported Estabrooks’s demand for an apology and the Tribune also published a letter-to-the-editor in October 2018 criticizing the mayor for defending Burke.
In November, more than a year after the letter was published, Mayor Higham said its description of what happened outside the council chamber was “fabricated and false” even though the letter writer repeated what Estabrooks had said about the incident when he demanded an apology.
Higham suggested that a review conducted by Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken concluded that Burke had not acted rudely.
“The [surveillance] tape showed a quiet, private, respectful conversation among the four,” Higham said. “Nothing remotely close to what was publicly alleged and the only possible conclusion was that this was fabricated.”
Mayor promises meeting
Merlin Estabrooks wondered why the mayor was raising the matter more than a year later and when Estabrooks said he would like to see the surveillance video again, Higham readily agreed.
“We could arrange for that,” he said. “I think there are some in the community that would like to see that,” he added. “We can do that, we can show the public the tape.”
He also promised that at a future meeting, Deputy Mayor Aiken would report on his investigation and then Estabrooks would be given a chance to respond.
Although Aiken’s conclusions were never reported publicly, he did e-mail Warktimes last week to say that after he and CAO Handrahan independently viewed the surveillance video and interviewed everyone involved in the disputed conversation, they decided that the complaints against Burke were unjustified.
“In concluding this, Phil and I did not draw any conclusions about, discuss, or make any statements about the veracity of those involved,” Aiken wrote. “We just recognized that people’s accounts of events in any situation differ. We never concluded anyone was lying, just that they were inaccurate.”
Video surveillance in Town Hall
During the public question period at the end of Monday’s council meeting, Sackville resident Brian Lane wondered about the presence of surveillance cameras in the town hall.
“I’m sure there’s probably a lot of people who aren’t aware that when they’re in this lobby that there is surveillance,” he said.
(In 2014, New Brunswick’s privacy commissioner said signs should be posted in areas under surveillance, but there are no signs at the entrance to the lobby outside the council chamber or in the lobby itself.)
CAO Handrahan said the cameras are there “for the safety and security of our building.”
Handrahan replied that the town is governed by the provincial Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (RTIPPA).
Mayor Higham then promised to check RTIPPA to see if the surveillance video could be shown to the public.