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.”
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.