Sackville Mayor Shawn Mesheau cast a tie-breaking vote last night to defeat a motion calling for fundamental changes in the process for amalgamating the town with Dorchester and three surrounding local service districts.
Among other things, the motion would have formally requested more time for citizen engagement in the reform process.
Council also defeated another motion calling on the town not to collaborate at all with the provincial advisory committees that will decide key issues.
The debate, which lasted for 87 minutes, took many twists and turns after Councillor Bill Evans introduced his motion to boycott the reform process launched in December by the Higgs government in Fredericton.
“We can’t win the game by playing by Conservative rules,” Evans told his colleagues.
“They made the rules and they’ve rigged the game,” he added.
“What we need to do is protest.”
Evans proposed that council boycott town participation in two provincial advisory committees that will decide issues such as the size and composition of the amalgamated council as well as the name of the new municipality.
“Council will not participate further in this process and council will instruct the CAO to instruct town staff not to assist with this forced amalgamation,” his motion read.
“The only participation in this process should be to condemn it, work with other municipalities in refusing to engage in it and encourage our community members to protest against it to the provincial government.”
It soon became clear, however, that there was little support for Evans’s motion especially after CAO Jamie Burke said the town’s lawyer believes it would violate Bill 82, the recently passed provincial law imposing amalgamation.
Burke cited Council’s Code of Conduct requiring members to uphold federal and provincial laws.
Then, he went a step further.
“It’s unfortunate that you would put me in a situation as your CAO,” he said, referring to his own participation on one of the two advisory committees.
“You can pass any motion that you like, that’s your prerogative, but you can’t force me to break the law and I won’t,” Burke added.
“I will be participating in the local government reform process.”
‘Sackville will always be Sackville’
Deputy Mayor Andrew Black echoed other councillors when he said that since municipal reform is inevitable, Sackville should work with the province to get the most favourable terms it can.
Black noted that he will be serving on one of the provincial advisory committees along with Mayor Mesheau and he promised to use it to advance the town’s interests.
“I’m going to be a significantly vocal part of every conversation that happens,” he said.
“I’m going to ask every question that I can, shout about all concerns that come to mind, vigilantly be firm and responsive and most importantly, make sure to report information that is covered at our meetings,” he added.
“Sackville will always be Sackville,” Black said.
“It will be all the things that all of us hold dear about our amazing, growing little town and that is what I’m going to be at the table to champion, protect and uphold as much as I am able in the circumstances that we face.”
In the end, only Evans voted for his own motion, but he then seconded another one put forward by Councillor Sabine Dietz.
“The purpose of this motion is to improve the process,” Dietz said.
She added that the reform process is undemocratic and secretive.
“Government is not building relationships, not building trust, there’s no shared responsibility and there’s no opportunity for participation with citizens,” she said.
Among other things, Dietz’s motion called on Sackville’s representatives on the provincial advisory committees to demand that the Fort Folly First Nation be included; that committee representation be based on population and that timelines be extended to allow for citizen engagement in the reform process.
(Later, Dietz agreed to replace the word demand with request. And, after Deputy Mayor Black reported that Chief Rebecca Knockwood told him that Fort Folly didn’t need to be included on the advisory committee, Dietz agreed to alter the wording to indicate that the First Nation should be invited to participate.)
As debate on the motion proceeded, it emerged that council was evenly split on whether to vote for or against it.
In speaking against the motion, Councillor Matt Estabrooks said the advisory committees are meant to make decisions based on consensus as representatives from Dorchester, Sackville and the LSDs discuss various issues including council size and composition.
“Given that the spirit of the advisory committee is based on collaboration, the composition of the committee was to include equal representation from all communities involved and not to be formed by the principle of representation by population wherein one community would have more voice at the table,” he said.
Estabrooks also argued that, although the transition timelines are tight, most of the work will be done later by the new amalgamated council after it’s in place next January.
“That is who should be making these decisions,” he said.
“Once the new and responsible Entity 40 council and mayor are elected,” he said, “they may begin to review and alter if necessary, anything that was implemented during the transition process.”
“I see this more as something symbolic,” Council Ken Hicks said in supporting the motion.
“As we unfortunately move forward with this process, we take the opportunities to voice our displeasure and I see this motion as doing just that,” he added.
“Again, it’s more symbolic in the sense that they (provincial representatives) don’t have to do any of it, but at least we’re getting the information out there, a process that we feel should have been followed at the very least.”
When Mayor Mesheau finally called the vote, Councillors Dietz, Evans, Tower and Hicks voted in favour while Councillors Butcher, Estabrooks, Phinney and Deputy Mayor Black voted against.
“It’s over to me,” Mesheau said as he began reflecting aloud on his tie-breaking role.
He promised that he and Black would raise the issues in Dietz’s motion as the provincial advisory committee seeks consensus among the five areas involved in the amalgamation of Entity 40.
“I will vote against the motion,” the mayor said, “but I will assure this council that myself and Deputy Mayor Black…will take items here and move them forward to the advisory committee and be doing everything we can to ensure than any information that is brought to us by this council is reiterated through to that committee.”
Note: CAO Jamie Burke reported that the provincial advisory committee will decide tonight (February 15) on the size of the new council and how Sackville, Dorchester and the three LSDs will be represented on it. That closed-door meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Burke said the decision it makes will be submitted to the province on Wednesday morning (February 16).
When asked during the question period when that decision will be made public, the mayor said he didn’t know.
“We’ll find that out tomorrow night,” he said, but added that it’s possible the decision could be postponed.
“We might come to a consensus that we need more time and hopefully if that’s the consensus, we’ll be allotted more time,” Mesheau said.