At its first meeting tonight, Tantramar Town Council voted against amending its agenda to allow members of the public and media to ask questions.
The agenda did not include the public question period that has been a tradition in Sackville for at least 30-years because the new council was operating under a procedural bylaw imposed by the province.
Councillor Michael Tower moved a motion, seconded by Councillor Allison Butcher, calling for a public question period to be added to the agenda.
“I would like to add at the end of the meeting a question period for the public or the press to maintain our transparency,” Tower said.
He suggested that during the recent municipal election campaign, candidates had spoken in favour of openness.
“I think losing this question period takes away transparency,” Tower added.
The motion to amend the agenda to include a public question period required unanimous consent. Councillors Debbie Wiggins-Colwell, Matt Estabrooks and Bruce Phinney voted no.
Mayor Black then explained that the new council was operating under a bylaw imposed by the province.
“I’ve heard that it’s pretty much standard across the province,” he said, adding that the new council can now look at its bylaws “and potentially change them if we need to.”
During an interview later, he said that he personally favours holding a public question period, but that council itself would have to make that decision.
CAO Jennifer Borne told reporters after the council meeting that Tantramar will be reviewing its bylaws.
“If there’s any potential amendments, any feedback that comes in, certainly any information will go into the files for potential amendments going forward and council can review them,” she said.
In an earlier e-mail to Warktimes, Borne wrote that Tantramar welcomes public and media interest in local government.
“Under the new organizational structure, we will have a Corporate Communications position that will be dedicated to providing information to the media and public on decisions of council,” she added.
She later assured reporters that the new communications officer would not replace the council question period, but would create opportunities for public engagement and feedback.
A step backward
Mount Allison Professor Geoff Martin, who specializes in the study of local governments, wrote in an e-mail that “it’s a real step backward not to have a question period, an outrage even.”
Martin, who served on Sackville Town council from 1998 to 2004, adds it gives citizens a chance to question the people they elected.
“This is supposed to be the order of government closest to the people, and the only one that ‘does not rule on behalf of the King,'” he added.
“This is supposed to be a democratic government, not a soulless corporation.”