Sackville town staff drop plan to define who is a journalist, but mayor imposes curbs on media questions

CAO Jamie Burke

Sackville town staff have withdrawn a controversial proposal that would have restricted the definition of journalists “accredited” to cover council meetings.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

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.

New restrictions

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.

Mayor Shawn Mesheau

“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.”

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9 Responses to Sackville town staff drop plan to define who is a journalist, but mayor imposes curbs on media questions

  1. Gordon says:

    I am not a supporter of Farcebook or other social media…BUT having stated that..these guys had better think thru what they are doing! If they censure the information to the electorate or the methods by which that information is learned (questions) as posed at “their” meetings…then guess what? I’ll tell you what…Social media will go to work spreading the Misinformation while they sit triumphantly in their seats withholding the truthful information that press and other public are asking them to reveal. Social media will go to work, as it always does spreading everything from conspiracy theories to character defamations….and mayor and council will feed the fire! Wake up!

  2. Sharon Hicks says:

    One aspect which hasn’t yet been mentioned is the 15-minute time limit for the question period at the end of the meeting.

    Let’s say 2 or 3 citizens want to ask questions, and let’s say they are ‘recognized by the chair’ before members of the press are acknowledged, and therefore they get to ask their questions first. There is a distinct possibility they could use up the full 15 minutes allowed, and then the 2 members of the press would not have time to ask THEIR questions.

    Therefore, it is very important for ‘the press’ to go first in the closing question periods, as has been the practice all along at Regular Council meetings. As Councilor Tower correctly pointed out at last night’s meeting, our 2 local reporters are the ones who write the stories which represent what the Town is doing, and therefore provide the only remaining link to the general population. They have every right to be recognized first.

    • Dustin Chandler says:

      Perhaps the issue is with the 15 minute time limit. Although citizen attendance at council meetings may be sporadic, if citizens take the time to attend a meeting they should have proper opportunity to ask their question – because if the topic is not on the agenda again, they will have lost their chance to ask…. and this is also a problematic procedural issue.

  3. Media literacy in this ‘new’ digital surround is needed. Statements from Town council and public servants show a lack of understanding of what has transpired in the past 20 years. We no longer have a local newspaper. Currently, consumer social media take all of our attention. Perhaps it’s time for the Town to step up and create a public commons where we all can communicate in the open. Where is our digital town square?

    It’s 2021 and we are the media

  4. Marcellus says:

    Very glad to hear your formidable credentials have spoken volumes and reversed some of the extremely undemocratic tendencies of the town council, but something still smells rotten in the town of Sackville… what ghosts lurk therein, and what are they trying to hide, I wonder?

  5. Christian Corbet says:

    Why is town council focusing on what is or isn’t the press? They simply have no control over that. They’re actions are seemingly a bullying strategy to try and gain some sense of who can and cant speak or write about them. We are not ignorant to such behaviours. Its all very Trumpian to many. these behaviours also proves to us their priorities are on protecting themselves while the focus should be on the building of our economy. But why are they not talking about building the economy? The answer is simple, they don’t know how to truly build business.
    Face it the town is dying.

    • Tim Reiffenstein says:

      Christian Corbet, I thought it was the purpose of businesses to build business. In contrast, I think it is the job of municipalities to manage the municipality on behalf of citizens. There are very few significant examples in the literature, beyond company towns, of municipalities ‘building the economy’. I agree with your criticism of the Town’s fumbling efforts at media relations.

  6. Percy Best says:

    Tim, have you been out of Sackville and to Dieppe, Moncton, Riverview, Scoudouc, or Shediac lately. They bend over backwards to create massive Industrial Parks with plenty of properly serviced land to attract businesses to their communities, and they make it as easy as they can, with very little red tape to get them settled in. Try comparing that to Sackville. Just who is our Economic Development officer and what do they do? Would you like a long list of names of companies and individuals who have tried and given up on our town in the past 20 years?

  7. Les Hicks says:

    To quote CAO Burke ““We’ve heard from councillors here, we’ve had some letters from members of the public and media professionals…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,’” It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when the CAO of the Town of Sackville in the year 2021 would have to be lectured by councillors, members of the public, and ‘media professionals’ on how important having a free press is in a democracy, and how dangerous his proposed draconian by-law was that attempted to give local municipal staff and government the power to define who and who is not considered to be a member of the press. I also find it extremely offensive of him and some of the town councillors to lump Mr. Wark, who worked for years as a journalist with one of Canada’s most recognized media outlets, the CBC, and then as a professor of journalism, to be lumped in with members of the public who have ‘social media’ blogs but no professional qualifications. I thank Councillor Tower for his statement and agree with him that it is important that journalists like Mr. Wark and Ms. Butler be given the opportunity to pose questions of staff and councillors first in the limited 15 minute time for questions at the end of council meetings.

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