Tantramar council votes against releasing secret fire department report

Councillor Bruce Phinney

Tantramar Councillor Bruce Phinney said he was disappointed in his colleagues last night after all but one of them voted against releasing a consultants’ report on troubles within the Sackville Fire Department.

“Without reading the report, I have no idea what the problems were,” Phinney told reporters after the vote.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “It doesn’t add up.”

He was commenting on the town’s repeated refusal to release a $27,500 report from Montana Consulting that Sackville Town Council commissioned in 2021.

It was responding then to a series of Warktimes reports based on interviews with several current and former firefighters in which they described a workplace environment rife with harassment, bullying, favouritism and safety violations that had led to the resignations of about 17 volunteer firefighters over a five-year period.

‘Toxic’ work environment?

After introducing his motion last night calling for the release of the Montana report to council and the public, Phinney said it was wrong that councillors did not get to read either the report itself or its 20 recommendations.

“I’ve been here since 2004. Any consultant that we brought in before, we always got a copy of the results. We didn’t this time and I could never understand why.”

Phinney said he’s hearing from volunteers that the problems are continuing within Sackville Fire & Rescue.

“We cannot continue to have a toxic environment for them to work in,” he said, adding that members of council have a duty to “protect the people who are there.”

“We don’t know that there’s a toxic work environment,” Mayor Andrew Black interjected.

“We can do semantics and say, ‘Well, we don’t know if it’s toxic’, but there are problems,” Phinney responded.

“We need to find out what the problems are and if they’re still continuing like I’m being told.”

Phinney’s only supporter

Councillor Debbie Wiggins-Colwell

Councillor Debbie Wiggins-Colwell seconded the motion calling for release of the Montana report and was the only other councillor to vote in favour of it.

She expressed concern about the eventual amalgamation of the Sackville fire department with the ones in Dorchester and Point de Bute.

“I would like to know what was in the report [and] read some of the concerns just for my own information and to be able to move forward on this,” she said.

Mayor Black responded by reminding her and Phinney that no one has read the Montana report.

“Making the assumption that there are problems without knowing what the report is, you could easily make the assumption that there are no problems,” he said.

“So, since we don’t know the report, we don’t know if there are problems,” Black added.

“So, making assumptions that there are problems is problematic.”


Councillor Allison Butcher argued against releasing the Montana report after pointing out that Sackville Town Council had received what she called “a very thorough Power Point presentation of all of the issues” in it without including the names of the firefighters the consultants had interviewed.

Councillor Allison Butcher

“Everyone who was interviewed was assured that it was confidential and confidential means that I’m not allowed even as a councillor to hear that Bill didn’t like this about Joe,” she said.

“We can hear about the all-encompassing issue and what will be worked on and we have requested that we find [an] update on where we’re at with the action items being done,” Butcher added.

But, she said, it would be unfair to breach confidentiality.

“We can’t take what was promised as a confidential report and go, ‘Oh we’ve changed our minds, now we’re going to all see it.'”

Councillor Michael Tower agreed that “confidentiality has got to be number one.”

He pointed out that the provincial Ombud had denied Warktimes’ appeal against the town’s decision to withhold the report.

Tower suggested that perhaps council could receive another Power Point presentation on the status of the 20 recommendations in the report and “then we know where we are and where we’re going.”

‘Two options’

Phinney told reporters later that confidentiality could be maintained by eliminating or redacting any names in the consultants’ report.

He said he was now left with two choices. He could appeal the town’s refusal to release the report to him under the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act by going to the Ombud or the Court of King’s Bench.

“I would have to find out approximately what it would cost me and get the judge to make a decision on this.”

[A Halifax lawyer, who specializes in right to information issues, estimates it would cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to take the case to court with full legal representation.]

Meantime, Warktimes asked Sackville firefighter Travis Thurston, who attended last night’s council meeting, what he thought about the outcome of the vote.

Thurston noted that volunteer firefighters were re-classified last year as part-time town employees, and as such, they must refer all media requests for information to Fire Chief Craig Bowser.

To read one of my reports on the troubles at Sackville’s fire dept., click here.

For a report on Sackville’s current ‘whistleblower’ protection, click here.

To read about Sackville’s fire dept. complaints procedure, click here.

This entry was posted in Sackville Fire & Rescue, Town of Sackville, Town of Tantramar and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tantramar council votes against releasing secret fire department report

  1. Tim Reiffenstein says:

    Councilor Butcher is so amazingly seasoned at communicating with our community’s youngest members at Playschool, that it is hard not to read her so-obvious-it-could-be-grasped-by-a-three-year-old explanation of why confidentiality in data collection/use matters as an obvious dismissal of this article’s premise.

  2. Les Hicks says:

    This lack of transparency and accountability regarding the Montana report has been covered very well by Wark Times and CHMA FM. Some of my concerns raised by their reporting include:

    1) The Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act states that anything having to do with personnel has to be kept confidential. Keeping in mind that almost any issue in government departments could be considered as relating to personnel within the department, this gives municipal, provincial, and federal governments the excuse to hide any embarrassing/damaging information from the electorate.

    2) In a previous article, Bruce already detailed the recent concerns expressed by federal and provincial information commissioners who have stated that “the right to information laws require major changes to ensure that the culture of public bodies/institutions be founded on the fundamental principle that information under their control belongs to the people they serve.” As they point out, the lack of access to government-held records results in a lack of confidence in the legitimacy of democratic institutions and causes the greatest harm to the most vulnerable populations. I urge anyone who hasn’t read Bruce’s Oct 5th article to check it out as it has direct relevance to the Montana report.

    3) There is absolutely no reason why names/positions could not be redacted from the report to protect the confidentiality of town employees so that our councillors could have access to it. In this way they could a) gain a better understanding of exactly what problems, if any, were experienced; b) know what recommendations were made in the expensive report; and c) follow up to ensure that those recommendations were being addressed by town management in a timely manner. Months after the finalization of the Montana report, at a town council meeting, CAO Burke was unable or unwilling to detail to town council what recommendations, if any, from the report had been implemented by town management. From statements made by councillors at this week’s meeting, it appears that our councillors still have no information on exactly what recommendations were made in the report or how many of them have been acted on to date. The fact that our town councillors approved the expenditure of $27,500 for the Montana Report and were then denied access to the report should be repugnant to anyone concerned with open and accountable governance.

    4) After the conclusion of the Montana report, it appears that firefighters still have to go through the same chain of command to express concerns as they did previously. This apparently didn’t result in their concerns being addressed previously, so how do the public know that their concerns will be addressed now? Also, as a result of the Montana report, firefighters and other town employees are not allowed to speak about any workplace concerns to the media and they have to refer any media request to town management. How can this be considered transparent and accountable governance? This is in complete contrast to all of the current international concerns regarding the protection of the rights of whistleblowers who expose potential problems in government departments.

    5) Mayor Black made note of the fact that no one (councillors) has read the Montana report. He then stated that “Making the assumption that there are problems without knowing what the report is, you could easily make the assumption that there are no problems…So, since we don’t know the report, we don’t know if there are problems…So, making assumptions that there are problems is problematic.” These statements actually demonstrate exactly what is wrong with this whole affair – how can council make any informed decisions about the issues when they are not allowed to read the report that details them?

    On a lighter note, these comments bring to mind Donald Rumsfeld’s comments from 2002 that “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns…But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

  3. Thilo Joerger says:

    The Mayor’s statements remind one of Carl Sagan’s famous logical fallacy example that the “Absence of Evidence does not mean Evidence of Absence.” The Mayor appears to disregard or ignore the reasons Sackville Council voted to commission the consultants’ report in the first place: Because there was cause to suspect problems with the Sackville Fire Department. Mr. Wark’s reports are still accessible for those who need refreshing their memories.

Leave a Reply