Sackville’s Deputy Mayor defends secret budget sessions, but experts disagree

Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken

Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken says he sees nothing wrong with councillors and town managers meeting privately to discuss budget priorities.

“We do that every year,” Aiken said today during a telephone interview. “I think we’ve done it every year since I’ve been on council,” he added.

“It’s a sit-down working session.”

He was referring to an online, private council meeting with senior town staff held on September 29th.

“Essentially what we did this time was everybody gave what they thought should be the budget priorities, half a dozen of them for the next year, and then we kind of went through them all together and sorted out who thought what suggestions were the most important.”

Aiken acknowledges that there was no public notice of the meeting either before or after it and there is no recording of what was said.

The public only became aware of it during an open council meeting on October 26th when Councillor Shawn Mesheau asked whether the priorities determined during the private session could be made public along with the proposed budgets to support those priorities.

Treasurer Michael Beal replied that information from what he called “a working group meeting” is not normally made public.

“It wasn’t an official council meeting, it was just a working group meeting between staff and council,” Beal said. “We do not have minutes from the meeting, we do not have documents, so we have not provided that [information].”

Beal suggested council would have to pass a resolution before the information could be released.

Law requires open meetings

Mt. A. politics professor Geoff Martin

Mount Allison Politics Professor Geoff Martin says unofficial meetings like this one appear to violate the provincial Local Governance Act which specifies that all regular and special council meetings must be open to the public.

Martin, who served on Sackville Council from 1998 to 2004, points out that the Act specifies a narrow list of 10 matters, such as legal issues, labour negotiations and land transactions, that council can discuss behind closed doors, but public notice must be given of the date of the closed meeting along with the nature of the subjects discussed.

“The Local Governance Act is pretty categorical,” Martin says. “It doesn’t allow for unofficial meetings or off-book meetings.”

He adds that municipal voters need to know where councillors stand on budget priorities as we head into an election next May.

“All these people who may seek re-election should be transparent to the public regarding what their priorities are,” Martin says.

“Municipal councils and staff often fall into trying to do things in secret,” he adds, “to avoid controversy or to stay below the radar and that’s not how the system is set up [or] how the system is supposed to run.”

Toby Mendel agrees.

He’s the executive director of the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy which advocates for democratic rights such as access to information.

Toby Mendel

He says New Brunswick’s Local Governance Act requires meetings to be held in public.

“There’s a very, very heavy presumption in democracies and under law as well that meetings of elected officials will be open unless there’s a specific reason to close them,” Mendel adds.

“There’s very good reason for that because those elected officials wield the power and are the interface between the electorate and the affairs of government,” he says.

“We need their meetings to be open and when those meetings deal with financial matters that makes it all the more important because financial issues are the backbone of our decision-making.”

Experts misinterpret law: Aiken

Deputy Mayor Aiken says Martin and Mendel appear to be misinterpreting the Local Governance Act.

“What it says is that all decisions of council shall be made at a regular or special meeting,” he adds, “and then it says all these meetings are open to the public.”

He points out that council made no formal decisions at its private meeting on September 29th.

Aiken also argues that the law doesn’t preclude other kinds of meetings.

“You can have all the other meetings you want, you just can’t make decisions or pass motions,” he concludes.

To read relevant sections of New Brunswick’s Local Governance Act, click here.

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8 Responses to Sackville’s Deputy Mayor defends secret budget sessions, but experts disagree

  1. brian lane says:

    Is it any wonder there were very few questions at the Public meeting when this happens?
    There does appear to be a difference of opinion whether this is proper or not, perhaps time for a ruling/clarification from the province. Honestly the “we’ve always done it this way” defence sounds kind of childish.

  2. Alice C Cotton says:

    So you can have a whole bunch of meetings, debate stuff, and all in private, and then meet in public and vote perfunctorily on what you debated in private meetings? Not give any reason why you are making decisions, because it was all done in private? Wow, just wow.

  3. Christian Corbet says:

    If town council is publicly stating these secret meetings are legal and okay to do just imagine what they may also be doing behind taxpayers backs…

    • Kata List Productions says:

      But they all swear an oath to the Queen, fly the United Nations’ flag in town and uphold UN Agenda 2030 sustainable development goals.. they are completely transparent and completely obediant Christian.. that is the truth.. they do not hide their goals, at all.

      • Tim Reiffenstein says:

        I think the UN flag is flown at the Memorial Park to honor those who have served in the numerous UN sanctioned missions such as Cyprus and Afghanistan. Have you actually read the UN’s SDG? They make a great deal of sense and reflect a significant improvement in our understanding of development challenges in comparison to the Millennium Development Goals. But how you connect them to the machinations of Sackville town council is beyond me.

  4. Janice Harvey says:

    The Act clearly contradicts the deputy mayor. Thank you for including the excerpt so readers can see for themselves what is says. Now, how is Council to be held accountable? That’s always a problem in this province. Rules are broken with no consequences.

    • Kelly Alder says:

      I believe that there may be a few councilors that are pushing for secrecy more than others. All you need to do is watch the meetings or have attended when we were allowed to, in order to see who is running the show. We had a very authoritarian past CAO and I’m afraid we have only seen the beginning of more things being done without public knowledge. Easy to do when there are no in person meetings happening and no indications as to when they may ever start again.

      • Kata List Productions says:

        Agreed Kelly.. its called rule by technocracy.. I don’t ‘zoom’ and I don’t plan to.. I also don’t have a cell phone or skype or any other invasive spy technology in my cache… I was already pushed aside years ago for asking a question on Facebook and banned by the ‘powers that be’ running the page — Kelly Spurles, Handrahan, Matt Pryde? I don’t know and I don’t care.. all I know is that was my wake up call in 2015 that they do not want to hear concerns of homeowners and taxpayers. I leave them to it .. they are building a very clever machine together – I hope they find their work fruitful.

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