Sackville town staff have withdrawn a controversial proposal that would have restricted the definition of journalists “accredited” to cover council meetings.
CAO Jamie Burke said staff made the decision after hearing from people opposed to a definition that would have excluded journalists who write for “personal, non-commercial or enthusiast websites.”
“We’ve heard from councillors here, we’ve had some letters from members of the public and media professionals,” Burke told town council on Tuesday.
“The indication was that there’s freedom of speech, the press or media shouldn’t be defined, you don’t do that, so we said ‘OK, fair enough, we’ve looked at things again,'” he said.
Burke was referring to a change in a town bylaw that staff proposed last month restricting the definition of “press” to “an individual reporting on behalf of an accredited media outlet including print, radio and television.”
At the time Councillors Bill Evans, Michael Tower and Sabine Dietz opposed that definition.
“Nowadays press, media includes the entirely online news outlets, bloggers, all of that. That’s what media is nowadays,” Dietz said after suggesting that the proposed definition be dropped from the bylaw respecting the procedure and organization of town council.
Participation in Question Period
Burke told council on Tuesday that staff originally felt the need to define “press” because journalists are allowed the privilege of going first during public question periods at the end of council meetings.
But he said staff had decided to eliminate the “press first” wording in the bylaw and now, it will be up to the mayor to recognize people who want to ask questions.
“We want people to be able to come and participate, so we’ll treat everyone the same,” Burke said.
“If a citizen wants to ask a question, it will be up to the chair…to determine which one of the individuals in the room get to approach the podium first,” he added.
Councillor Michael Tower objected to abandoning the “press first” provision.
“I don’t think we actually consider press above the people,” he said.
“I think we use ‘the press’ because they would do stories on what we have happening in council and we’ve lost our newspaper,” he added.
Tower said people now tune in to listen to the news written and presented by Erica Butler on CHMA or read The New Wark Times.
“What they do as a service to our community is important, so I think we should always maintain that the media go first with their questions,” he said.
The issue of who gets to ask questions first was not resolved and may be discussed again when the bylaw changes come up for approval at future council meetings.
No members of the public were present to ask questions at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
During media questioning, it became clear that Mayor Mesheau intends to strictly enforce a rule that says questions may only be asked for clarification about matters arising from that meeting’s agenda.
The mayor did respond to a question about public release of the Montana Consulting workplace assessment on allegations of bullying and harassment in the Sackville Fire Department by saying that the report would remain confidential because it involves personnel matters.
But he refused to discuss the public statement the town says it intends to release about the Montana report.
“Mr. Wark, tonight the Question Period is regarding the information that appeared in the agenda tonight and for clarification, we’re not discussing the [workplace] assessment,” he said.
Mesheau pointed out that town council will be briefed on the Montana report at 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon with a briefing for members of the Fire Department at 7 p.m. that evening.
Earlier, he rejected Councillor Bruce Phinney’s request that he receive a copy of the full report before Thursday’s council briefing.
“Councillor Phinney we’re not discussing that this evening, OK, so if you want to raise that with the CAO afterwards, we’ll talk about that later,” Mesheau said.
During the Question Period, Mesheau would not answer a reporter’s question about whether town staff had met with RCMP commander Larry Tremblay to discuss problems getting through to the Sackville detachment, especially on evenings and weekends.
“There’ll be a report given by the public safety liaison [councillor] next Monday and that report has not been provided to council, council has not received any updates, so we will look to the liaison report next week in regards to any update to do with response time to phone calls,” Mesheau said.
CAO Jamie Burke also pointed out that journalists are free to call him anytime with their questions.
“I answered 13 questions last week,” he said. “I made myself available to get the questions [information] you need, so one would hope that you don’t need to wait until the council meeting to ask all the questions.”
Burke added that he spent “a considerable amount of time and research to pull that information together…and we do that all the time.”