For the third time, New Brunswick’s Ombud has rejected a Warktimes complaint about secrecy in Sackville’s municipal government.
In a letter e-mailed today, Senior Investigator Christine LeBlanc writes that Sackville Town Council’s monthly, closed-door RCMP briefings do not violate the Local Governance Act.
She points to Section 68(1) of the law that says a council meeting may be closed to the public “if it is necessary to discuss information gathered by the police, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in the course of investigating any illegal activity or suspected illegal activity, or the source of that information.”
LeBlanc’s letter also says that a written report on police activities is presented at every regular council meeting and a member of the RCMP appears before council every four months to answer questions.
She was responding to a Warktimes complaint filed with the Ombud’s office on August 17, 2021, more than 15 months ago:
My position is that Sackville Town Council can always go into closed session to discuss matters with the RCMP that fall under the provisions of Section 68(1) of New Brunswick’s Local Governance Act, but that it should not be permissible to close the entire monthly RCMP report just in case some legal or confidential matter happens to arise.
I would also argue that the intent of the Local Governance Act is that Sackville Town Council meetings should be open and public except when the mayor and councillors are discussing matters that are covered under Section 68(1).
In two previous rulings on Warktimes complaints, the Ombud said that the law does not prohibit town council from meeting with staff behind closed doors to discuss budget priorities and that the Montana report recommending what to do about persistent harassment and bullying within Sackville’s fire department should remain secret because it deals with investigations into personnel or harassment matters.
Former CAO Phil Handrahan decided that the monthly RCMP council briefings should be held in public starting in September 2019 after a series of articles about the frequency of closed municipal council meetings across New Brunswick in the Times & Transcript and after Warktimes raised concerns about the lack of public briefings from the RCMP.
However, six months later, in February 2020, Sgt. Paul Gagné complained about having to deliver his reports in public.
“Since we changed the format of our present meeting to being open to the public, I personally don’t find as much value in being here as I did before because I found our exchanges much more, I would say, hearty and substantial,” he told council.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, the RCMP stopped appearing before council when its meetings moved online.
Several months later, in November 2020, then-councillor Shawn Mesheau said he’d like to see the RCMP appearing before council again to explain its quarterly reports.
“I think it would be really important if the RCMP was actually presenting this report to help break down the information they’re providing and also to be able to answer any questions of the public or council,” Mesheau said.
He also called attention to RCMP opinion surveys showing that the force needed to do a better job providing information and service to its contract partners which include the town of Sackville.
“I just found some of the results quite interesting because 22% of the respondents thought that the value of money spent on the policing services was good,” Mesheau said. “That’s not a really high mark.”
He also pointed out that only 41% felt that the RCMP was providing useful information about its work.
Back behind closed doors
By August 2021, Sgt. Gagné got his wish when council decided to move the public briefings behind closed doors again.
Town CAO Jamie Burke responded to a reporter’s question about how the decision was made by saying it came after a discussion held in a private meeting.
“We can’t talk about in-camera discussions, but I’m quite comfortable to say that we had a conversation in-camera on the topic of RCMP reporting,” Burke said.
Within days, Warktimes filed a complaint to the Ombud which led to today’s ruling that the closed-door meetings comply with the law.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Association of Journalists awarded its annual Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy to the RCMP.
To read the Warktimes report on it, click here.
This was a major concern of mine when I ran for council. I said that in writing and in person that I would try to change this policy. I hope the new council for Tantramar will return to monthly public RCMP reports and less secrecy in general. I’m not holding my breath. Secrecy is more fun and makes one feel special. I will believe in a more open council when I see it.
It would be commendable for the new council to only resort to closed meetings when Section 68 matters are being discussed. Surely it’s just common sense that openness should be the default?
You do understand that some matters are ‘security’ issues and you have to accept that… its not so strange to keep RCMP matters private with all that is going on around us [which many people appear oblivious to] .. and so of course its all set up so that only those ‘privy’ are involved and get information on a ‘need to know’ basis… i.e. above your pay grade.
Yes, apparently he does understand that there are legitimate security issues to discuss in camera, because if you read the article you see that his complaint was that only those matters restricted by legislation should be discussed in camera, not everything the police happen to say:
“My position is that Sackville Town Council can always go into closed session to discuss matters with the RCMP that fall under the provisions of Section 68(1) of New Brunswick’s Local Governance Act, but that it should not be permissible to close the entire monthly RCMP report just in case some legal or confidential matter happens to arise.”
And it has nothing to do with “pay grade”. It has to do with democracy and public accountability.