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
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.
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.