Sackville Town Councillor Michael Tower says he would not have presented a motion on July 12th to suspend Councillor Bruce Phinney’s pay for two months if he had known it would include Phinney’s life, health and dental insurance.
“The benefits were mentioned during our [previous closed-door] discussion,” Tower said during Monday’s council meeting.
“I didn’t agree with that part of it and when I got the motion to read and it did not include benefits [that] was the reason why I made that motion,” he told council.
“I wouldn’t have made it if I felt benefits were part of it.”
A tale of 2 motions
The motion Tower read during the July 12 council meeting said that Phinney was being sanctioned for violating council’s Code of Conduct and that his penalties would include:
Suspension of the remuneration paid to Councillor Phinney for a period of two months.
However, the minutes of the meeting read:
Suspension of the remuneration and benefits paid to Councillor Phinney for a period of two months. [Emphasis added]
When asked about the discrepancy during council’s public question period on Monday, CAO Jamie Burke said the additional words in the official minutes were a mistake.
“We’ve talked to a legal representative on this and the commonly understood legal definition of remuneration includes benefits,” he said.
“So what’s happened I guess is we’ve got a little error in the minutes that were approved although the meaning of the motion doesn’t change.”
Councillor Allison Butcher agreed that the word remuneration includes pay and benefits.
She cited the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
“The definition of it includes all compensation of which the medical plan is one,” she said.
“So, it seems a bit redundant that in the minutes, it adds the additional medical plan.”
CAO cautions council
CAO Burke cautioned councillors about debating matters that were discussed during an in-camera or closed session.
“If council wants to debate whether or not benefits are included and have a fulsome discussion on that, that’s an in-camera item, so we would take a recess, discuss it and come out and discuss any further motions in a public forum,” he said.
Councillor Bill Evans agreed that council should not be talking about discussions in a closed-door meeting, but said that he understood when he voted on Councillor Tower’s motion, that benefits would be included.
Councillor Phinney, who was visiting family in Alberta when the motion passed, says he was never notified that the suspension of his pay included benefits.
He was caught by surprise on September 4th when he went to a pharmacy to get emergency prescriptions filled after being treated at the Amherst hospital for a kidney stone.
Phinney paid $72.85 for prescription pain killers, antibiotics and medication to help him pass the stone after being told his health card had been cancelled.
“All of a sudden finding out that I’m no longer covered under the medical plan that was given to me as part of the benefits of being an elected councillor…It shocked me when I found that out,” he told Warktimes.
What did Phinney do?
In April, council hired independent investigator Trisha Perry of Resonance Inc., a Saint John consulting firm, after a fellow councillor lodged a formal complaint about two statements Phinney made last February.
During a town council meeting on February 14th, Phinney criticized the town’s new hiring policy giving the CAO the power “to appoint and employ, suspend, and dismiss for cause all employees of the town” without having to consult council.
I’ll be voting against this Hiring Policy because I feel that we’re still using the same method we’ve been using for some time, and in the meantime during those, that time we’ve had a number of — it’s to me what I would call unfair hiring practice — that’s because of the fact that, some of the people actually even in the town feel the same way, where family members are being hired and then, also to me, there was one that I felt was a conflict of interest, so because of that, I think actually we should engage with a human resource management expert to turn around and help with the hiring, so that’s how I feel.
Investigator Perry found that Phinney’s statement breached Articles 4 and 19 of the Code:
Member Phinney’s public suggestion that Town staff engaged in “unfair hiring practices,” including one hire which was a “conflict of interest” is conduct that calls into question the integrity of the Town (Article 4) and is insulting to Town Administration (Article 19). Based on my investigation, Member Phinney’s opinion in this regard is based on speculation and innuendo — not evidence.
Allegations of nepotistic hiring practices are serious and, though we acknowledge Member Phinney had a duty as a public representative to raise his concerns if honestly felt, allegations of this nature, which by their very nature question the professional and ethical integrity of Town staff, should have been raised in a private setting.
Article 4 of the Code reads: “This Code provides a framework to guide ethical conduct which that upholds the integrity of the Town and the high standards of professional conduct the public expects of its local government elected representatives. This Code is intended to supplement and not replace existing legislation governing the conduct of Members.”
Article 19 of the Code reads: “No Member shall use indecent, abusive, or insulting words or expressions toward any other Member, Town Administration or any member of the public.”
During a council committee meeting on municipal reform on February 24th, Phinney commented on Mount Allison students, who are not from the town, voting in municipal and provincial elections here.
I guess actually my opinion on the fact of whether at large or wards, I would like to see four wards. I’d like to see the number, see who’s going to come out in those four wards to turn around and represent the people. I think it would be kind of interesting to see exactly a real mix up as a matter of fact. In relation to the students being counted, I have never agreed that the students should be part of it and the reason is because they are only citizens here for four years and sometimes, some of the decisions that are made by them can influence us for a very long time. We saw that in the provincial election when actually the students were allowed to vote. Actually, it’s been said by many professors at the university the only reason Megan got in was because of the fact that the students were allowed to vote. Now that comes from experts, not me. So that’s how I feel about it right now and I think it would be interesting to see exactly what does happen.
Investigator Perry found that Phinney’s statement breached Article 9(d) of the Code:
Article 9(d) requires Members to “serve and be seen to serve, the welfare and interest of the Town as a whole and the community at large in a conscientious and diligent manner and approach decision-making with an open mind.” A similar obligation is set out in section 48(6)(a) of the Local Governance Act which requires councillors to “consider the welfare and interests of the entire local government when making decisions.” In the context of municipal representation, students attending Mount Allison University may vote in the Town’s municipal election by virtue of section 14(2) of the Municipal Elections Act. The determination of voting rights is outside Member Phinney’s decision-making authority as a Member and suggesting certain residents, recognized by statute, should be excluded from the electorate by virtue of their temporary living status is an abrogation of the duty to be seen to serve the welfare and interests of the whole Town.
Article 9(d) of the Code reads: “Members shall serve, and be seen to serve, the welfare and interest of the Town as a whole and the community at large in a conscientious and diligent manner and approach decision-making with an open mind.”
To read the Council Code of Conduct, click here.