Both candidates in the running to become Sackville’s next mayor on May 10 have expressed concern about the flow of municipal information now that that the town no longer has a weekly newspaper.
On his mayoralty campaign Facebook page, Ron Aiken writes that town staff do a good job of communicating through the town’s website, but he calls the permanent closing of the Sackville Tribune-Post “very sad news” since the paper used to devote a weekly section to town news.
“This eliminates a major source of communication for those (especially seniors) that may not have ready access to electronic media,” Aiken writes.
“If anyone has any suggestions how our communications could reach a wider audience, I’d love to hear them.”
In a news release, mayoralty candidate Shawn Mesheau proposes to supplement the town’s website and e-mail communications with a printed newsletter that could be mailed to citizens who request it.
Mesheau says copies of the newsletter — issued three or four times a year — could also be available in local coffee shops and businesses.
“It could be an enhanced version of what’s currently going out electronically,” he says.
“It could include recapping the public meetings and events; rezoning applications that might have happened over the last quarter [and] provide details on upcoming meetings and events.”
Both Mesheau and Aiken advocate giving the public or media limited access to background documents that are up for discussion at town council’s first monthly meeting usually held on the first Monday.
Councillors receive the documents the preceding week, but neither mayoralty candidate favours releasing them then.
The documents include recommendations from town managers on such matters as town-supported events, proposed bylaw changes and the awarding of tenders for equipment purchases and road repairs.
To see an example of a council background document, click here.
Ron Aiken suggests providing the background documents to reporters as long as they agree not to release them until they are presented to council.
“These documents represent the work product of staff for Council and I think it only fair/reasonable that the first public presentation of this work is from the people that did it,” Aiken wrote on Facebook.
Shawn Mesheau suggests making the documents public at noon on the day of the council meeting to give people a few hours to look them over.
But he emphasizes that since the documents and proposals are drafts that are not final until council approves them, they should not be made public before members of council have had several days to digest them.
Mesheau says that releasing documents too far in advance can cause problems.
“As some information gets out into the public, and we know how social media can work sometimes, it can be misinterpreted,” he says, “and when it’s misinterpreted then information can flow out there that creates some things that aren’t really necessarily what’s transpiring.”
Town Hall meetings
Meantime, both mayoralty candidates are proposing regular town hall meetings where citizens can talk with members of council and staff.
Mesheau says quarterly, informal meetings would give people a chance to ask questions.
“I find sometimes a formal environment impedes somebody’s comfort level to come and step up and ask a question,” he adds.
“I think a lot of times if we get into that more one-on-one opportunity and the opportunity for council to hear from people in that environment, it’s more relaxed and people might feel more comfortable coming in and getting involved.”
For his part, Aiken proposes to consult people with expertise such as gardeners and arborists in tree planting or flower-bed planning projects.
“For less specific issues, I would have a regularly scheduled town hall kind of meeting (maybe 3 times each year) to gain input from people on whatever the issues of the day might be,” he writes.
While it’s refreshing to see that both candidates for Mayor seem to agree that the public and press should have access to the information documents which are reviewed at the first council meeting each month (the so-called ‘discussion meetings’), the question now seems to be ‘how to make that happen’.
The Agenda published for ‘discussion’ meetings consists of a list of just topic categories, with no detail as to what the issues actually are. That makes it virtually impossible for public and press to follow along with discussions on agenda items, whether at ‘in-person’ or ‘virtual’ meetings.
The rationale for withholding those documents from public scrutiny prior to the meetings has been to ‘prevent the public from misinterpreting information prior to it being presented at the meeting’ and also to ‘give Council time to review the document before they are released to the public’. It’s been ‘assumed’, it seems, that public or press would spread erroneous information about the content of the documents, via social media for example, and cause unwanted dissent among citizens.
As Councilor Mesheau mentioned though, Councilors are provided with the information documents the week prior to the ‘discussion’ meeting, giving them time to review each item, so by the time the information is ‘presented’ at the meeting, they are already familiar with the contents.
So, it seems logical that the documents could be made available to the public AT the ‘discussion’ meetings – either included in the printed agenda which is handed out as members of the public and press arrive for ‘in-person’ meetings, or posted on the town website just prior to the start time for ‘virtual’ meetings.
That way, everyone’s best interests would be served – ‘the town’ could maintain it’s tight hold on potentially sensitive information until it can be ‘explained’, while the public and press would be able to logically follow the meeting discussions, and even formulate legitimate questions for the newly implemented question period at the end of ‘discussion’ meetings.
As it is now, we observers (public and press) are just ‘working blind’.
It’s long past time for this to change. All it would take is a simple motion of Council, which could be done at the April meeting, and the final vote would then happen in May. Just get it done.