Sackville councillor opposed suspending colleague’s health benefits

Coun. Michael Tower reading July 12 motion to sanction Phinney

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]

CAO Jamie Burke

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.

Coun. Bruce Phinney

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.

First statement

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.

Phinney said:

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.”

Second statement

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.

Phinney said:

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.

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17 Responses to Sackville councillor opposed suspending colleague’s health benefits

  1. Percy Best says:

    It seems to me that the last ‘job’ that anyone would ever want is to be a Town of Sackville Councillor if that individual wants to honestly ‘speak their mind’.

    I certainly hope it will not be the same things happening for our new Town of Tantramar which will be established in less than four months.

    What has gone on here is not much of an incentive to anyone interested in taking up the torch.

  2. Louis says:

    Why is Burke speaking to this? Last time I checked, he is the CAO (for not much longer, I hope), not the Mayor & Council…

    Minutes that don’t match the meeting… reminds me of demotion permits that don’t have the conditions that were voted on. Why is this starting to feel all too familiar?

    What a nasty little town.

    • Sharon Hicks says:

      Many thanks Louis for pointing out that the CAO is (and has been) speaking to issues as if they were his purview. He does it because he has been allowed to do it.

      One can only hope that the new incoming Mayor and Council will regain control of speaking for themselves. With the current CAO out of the picture by then, that should be an easy transition to accomplish.

  3. Tim Reiffenstein says:

    People are saying….

    • Percy Best says:

      Tim, I am glad you recognize the fact that Councillor Phinney took the time to converse with so many citizens and that he relayed their concerns to the rest of Council. Open feedback is so very important.

      • Tim Reiffenstein says:

        If I were you, Percy, I’d be a little more concerned about my support for a politician who thinks the rules don’t apply to them and who seeks to disenfranchise voters who might not support them.

  4. Peter says:

    I certainly must agree with Percy. In fact, while I am not a fan or dedicated supporter of Mr. Phinney, the tortured squirming around the dictionary meanings of “remuneration” are insulting. The word remuneration, as is the case with most words, has shades of meaning depending on the immediate application or circumstances in which it is used. In the case of advertisements for job openings, the vast majority clearly separate two categories: 1. salary, 2. benefits. The ordinary coinage for workers is clear to most of us: salary is payment or stipend for the job, even when that job is serving as a member of a municipal Council. Benefits are special privileges that may or may not be available. Clearly in the courant pedantic overreach of attempting to parse the word “remuneration”, the pedants believed they had been dispensed from using the commonly accepted terms of language that pervade our society. Payment for work assigned and accomplished is indeed salary or stipend. Insurance coverage is certainly a benefit. Simple, understandable language would go a long way to clarifying situations like the current impasse. This is not a legal matter, requiring consecrated terminology, it is a question of moral justice. The outrageous attempt to remove councillor Phinney’s health insurance is a betrayal of the meaning of justice.

    • Mary Ellen Nurse says:

      Bravo. Well said.The draconian ill informed acts of this town council need to end. Who would have paid the damages had Counsellor Phinney’s health concerns and or his inability to pay for medication caused him much more serious serious harm while this illegal /contra employment law decision was in effect??

  5. Barb Smith says:

    Hopefully when we get our new C.A.O and new council in Tantramar we will not have to put up with the bullying that is taking place from our mayor and council along with the C.A..O that seems to be taking place in our little town now. I am an old lady and can not remember rackets like we have now, taking place on a regular basis in our little town. If we have a problem we just hire a consulting firm out of Moncton, at taxpayers expense to confirm what we want confirmed.

    • Susan says:

      It’s a corrupt little town and words can be manipulated with ease. Lawyers are good at that. But I don’t see a real serious breech here. Certainly not something that would require a councilor to lose pay and benefits. I think once the current CAO is gone things should improve. The CAO is a bully who calls a lawyer everytime he wants something to go his way. They need to stop calling lawyers and expensive consultants and just do their jobs. I can’t stand how much tax payer money is getting wasted on this crap. I really hope our new CAO can clean up this mess.

  6. Geoff Martin says:

    A point that has not been made yet is that it is a dirty move to cancel someone’s medical benefits even if they are suspended for a period. And if they were not explicitly told what would happen to benefits. If the will of Council is that the Town should not pay for the member’s benefits for two months, then they should have given Mr. Phinney the opportunity to pay the premiums to maintain the continuity of coverage. Often when unions go on strike the union pays the premiums of striking members to maintain the continuity of benefits, unless as part of the settlement the Employer pays for the benefits during the strike. This seems punitive and shows little regard for the ongoing relationship between the municipality and the individual involved.

  7. Tim Reiffenstein says:

    The centuries-long trend in most western democracies has been the gradual enfranchisement of rights, such as suffrage, to more members of the population. I do hope students pay close attention to politicians that seek to disenfranchise their right to vote. Most commenters here seem more concerned that Mr. Phinney’s sanction temporarily removed his benefits than they are with his antediluvian intent to prevent student voting, which is actually shocking.

    • Rob Lyon says:

      I agree completely with Tim on this issue. So is Councillor Phinney suggesting that there is a minimum number of years that you have to live in Sackville before you are granted the right to vote? Regardless of being a student or otherwise? Everyone thinking that a new CAO and council will change everything is ignoring the reality of past politics in Sackville which have been this way for as long as I have lived here and been involved in the community. Case in point. Why the fixation on Councillor Phinney who by all accounts broke requirements of his position while I hear very little dialogue about the extreme housing crisis in Sackville. Out of province buyers scooping up buildings, evicting tenants and doubling rents. Families with no place to live. To the point where health care workers cannot assume positions because of a lack of accommodations. The fact that the local food bank has seen a very steep rise in the number of citizens having to use their services because of food insecurity. Outrage for all of the workers in this Town who are never even given benefits to lose in the first place. These issues are never discussed. If people want to be outraged about something how about we focus it on something that warrants outrage in this community.

      • azi says:

        Rob, I get this conclusion from your comment that if I am in a position of power and if I do not like your opinion, I can close your business or remove your other rights from you ..the justification is that : I have power and I do not like you and what goes in your mind. How about that, do you like it?

        Also, none of the other problems you mentioned (that were more important to you than the issue in hand) will be fixed until people in positions of power learn to vote for something they understand, and learn that they are responsible to read minutes, and learn not to spend taxpayers’ money on their internal fights and disagreements (assuming I believe what they have mentioned in the above). There has been a considerable amount of money spent from taxpayers’ pockets for useless independent investigations without any useful income. The list is long..

  8. Mike Gallant says:

    Voting rights are regulated provincially and federally- so if anyone is in disagreement, they should enlist those representatives accordingly. Next, this Code of Conduct we have municipally- it was poorly conceived, written, and applied. I’m sure it was vetted by departmental lawyers and promulgated. Unfortunately, It provides those with an apparent grievance (at $15-25K a pop) to apply a formal complaint to those they disagree with. Fair enough – but there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism for those “accused” to appeal or redress the accusation. The investigator, judge and jury seem to be one person? And yes the bigger issues – the issues in town, provincially and nationally are more pressing than this – home/rent affordability, food, – ya know, those things that help us live. Hopefully the newly elected Mayor and Council put their efforts to social issues instead of hurling accusations against one another.

  9. Les Hicks says:

    The code of conduct for members of council states that : “Meetings shall provide an environment for transparent, respectful and healthy debate on matters requiring decision-making… Members shall treat every person, including other Members, Town Administration, volunteers or individuals providing services on a contract for service, and the public with dignity, understanding and respect…Members recognize the importance of working constructively with other levels of government and organizations in New Brunswick and beyond to achieve the goals of the Town… A member must not maliciously or falsely injure the professional or ethical reputation, or the prospects or practice of the Town Administration… No member shall disclose or release to any member of the public any confidential information acquired by the virtue of their office, in either oral or written form except when required by law or specifically authorized by the Town to do so.”

    In the July 12th council meeting, in reference to the decision made to hire Ms. Borne instead of Mr. Burke as the CAO of the new entity Tantramar, Councillor Dietz stated “I do not trust the CAO hiring process to have been fairly carried out or done in good faith and I certainly don’t trust the outcome of the CAO hiring process… Deputy Mayor Black has expressed his concern over the hiring process. He has expressed to us that he felt that the process was bad and that he was angry about what he called a flawed process.” She goes on to state that “it (the appointment of Ms. Borne over Mr. Burke) will be Tantramar’s loss going forward… I believe that from everything I understand the hiring process used to make the decision to hire a different CAO for Tantramar was flawed and neither fair, objective, justifiable, or reasonable.”

    In the same meeting Councillor Evans stated that “this whole hiring process has been demonstrably, if not deliberately, flawed and the outcome, to put it mildly, was unreasonable. And it’s not just a matter of our guy not winning. The person who has been doing this job for more than two years, who has received positive performance evaluations and has the support of council was rejected in favour – I think I’m going to try to exercise some restraint and not say something which may jeopardize things going forward…but I think it would probably be best if I just spoke – gave my support to our current CAO and close with this observation that this whole forced amalgamation process has been unreasonable and unfair from the beginning, but this latest imposition is a disgrace.”

    In the same meeting, Deputy Mayor Black, in response to a question from Mr. Wark about why Councillor Phinney was being sanctioned, stated “It’s an HR matter so we can’t get into the details of that…” The hiring of a new CAO is definitely an HR matter, but that didn’t stop Deputy Mayor Black, Councillor Dietz, or Councillor Evans from discussing in a public council meeting the qualifications of the candidates. In response to a question from Mr. Wark as to why he resigned from the CAO hiring committee, he stated “I left before the end of the process… I felt that the process was biased and unfair, and it certainly wasn’t reasonable…so I left.” That statement was directly contradicted by information presented by Minister Allain stating that the decision of who would be the successful candidate was made before Deputy Mayor Black tendered his resignation from the committee.

    In the Aug 9th council meeting, Councillor Evans, in reference to the CAO hiring process, stated “We will be confronting these challenges (amalgamation) with a DOWN-GRADED CAO and dispirited staff. I can’t prove that the minister is punishing Mr. Burke in order to stick it to Sackville out of spite, but the evidence I do have is consistent with this vindictiveness… I would like to thank Mr. Burke for his service and condemn his treatment. I believe that if anyone deserves to lose his job over this, it’s Minister Allain.”

    I can only imagine what will be going through Ms. Borne’s mind when she assumes her CAO position after hearing of the negative comments made about her indirectly by members of our town council.

    Can someone explain to me how the actions of these Councillors are any different than those that Councillor Phinney was sanctioned for? Should these councillors be sanctioned for their comments? As Councillor Evans likes to say, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” I don’t necessarily agree with all of Councillor Phinney’s positions, but I don’t think any Councillor should be sanctioned for representing the interests of their constituents and having a frank open debate about issues concerning the citizens of Sackville. As some academic experts have stated, this Code of Conduct can be used to stifle legitimate debate about important matters.

  10. Kata List Productions says:

    Thanks Bruce – You shouldn’t need an ‘academic expert’ to tell you that Bruce Phinney has been bullied over and over and over again here… but financially speaking he hasn’t suffered anything close to the financial loss and abuse that the late Mr. Beal [owner of 131 Main Street denied the right to create more housing units] suffered … some of us remember the details.. enough of us.

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