According to Sackville’s chief administrative officer, the town does not want journalists to report full details of what happens during special council meetings usually held on the first Monday of each month.
Jamie Burke’s comments came in response to a request from CHMA reporter Erica Butler for access to documents that council discusses during those public meetings.
“I find it difficult to follow some of the content of the special meetings without being able to refer to reports, maps and charts that are referred to in the discussion,” Butler said during the question period at the conclusion of Monday’s online meeting.
She mentioned a discussion about a land swap with a private owner that would enable the town to provide a pedestrian path in the Samantha Court area between Moffat Lane and Fawcett Avenue.
“I don’t know if I can take this opportunity to put in a request to council to consider making those related documents available to the public in advance of special meetings,” Butler said.
CAO Burke responded that town staff have one main reason for not releasing documents before they’re discussed at the special meetings.
“We want to be in a position where we’re providing council with factual information right at the very start,” he said, adding that someone had requested this year’s budget documents before they were presented to council.
“Releasing that information without the department head having the opportunity to provide the information directly to council initially, just leaves us open to the opportunity for assumptions, misinformation, etc.,” Burke said.
When he added that reports, newspaper articles and blogs on the meetings could come later, Butler asked:
“Is the intention that we (journalists) don’t write anything or talk about these special meetings of council? Is that the intention?”
“Yes, that is absolutely the intention,” Burke answered.
When Butler asked if special council sessions are public meetings, Burke asked her to explain what she meant.
“From my perspective, I’m following the public meetings and recording and documenting what goes on for readers and listeners,” Butler said. “I’m just not sure why this is a public meeting if the documents that go along with what’s being discussed aren’t available.”
She added that giving the public access to such documents could generate more participation in the meetings.
Councillor Bill Evans said he agreed with Burke that documents should be withheld until department heads have a chance to explain them to council.
“If you put the document out there, people will have at it without the explanation and people will go off half-cocked and make statements and criticisms and it’s not fair to the people [town staff] giving the presentation,” he said, adding that perhaps Butler could be given documents in “real time” during the meetings.
“We’ll probably have a discussion among council around this topic at some point in the future,” Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken said as Monday’s public question period ended.
Note: I did not attend Monday’s council meeting for Warktimes, but have also complained to council about being unable to follow discussions that are based on documents provided to councillors, but not to journalists and members of the public.
“I don’t know why I bother to attend these meetings when half the time, I can’t understand what’s going on,” I said during a regular council question period last year.
Council later responded to my comments by adding a public question period after special council meetings, but the town still does not provide access to documents before or during the meetings. They are often released three days later in advance of the regular council meetings usually held on the second Monday of each month.
To listen to an audio recording of Monday’s five-minute exchange, click on the media player below. The recording begins as the deputy mayor opens the public question period: