As criticism continues to mount in the province over the number of meetings municipal governments are holding behind closed doors, Sackville’s mayor is defending council’s decision-making processes and the justifications behind some of its own in-camera sessions.
Mayor John Higham said town council is bound by a framework set out in provincial legislation and adheres to those protocols.
“There are no secret meetings of this council,” he said. “You can only have meetings as defined under the (Municipalities) Act and they’re either a regular meeting or a discussion meeting, or it’s an in-camera meeting with specific criteria attached to that.”
Higham also pointed out that no decisions can be made by council unless it’s done at a public meeting.
“Every decision of council must be made by a proper quorum of council in a properly-arranged, properly-administered and properly-recorded meeting,” said Higham. “If not, there is no decision. This public accountability of council is central to local government.”
Higham’s comments come in response to a resident’s concerns over some troubling articles and editorials that have been reported in New Brunswick’s major daily newspapers this summer, pointing to what appears to be a “culture of secrecy” that is being developed in some municipalities around the province.
“So while there are some reasons for secret meetings, what they’re stating is it appears some councils are using ambiguous reasons as an excuse to exclude the public from some of the decision making,” said Sharon Hicks during the question period at Sackville’s monthly meeting on Aug. 12.
Hicks asked whether council would consider implementing a resolution to review its own practices and to make a concerted effort to reduce the number of in-camera meetings.
“It’s a chance for Sackville to take a proactive role and set a good example for the rest of the province,” she said.
But Coun. Bill Evans pointed out that, as far as Sackville town council is concerned, the decision of whether or not to go behind closed doors for a meeting is one that is based on criteria laid out in the Municipalities Act.
“We have an obligation under RTIPPA (Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) and a lot of other legal reasons to do stuff in camera,” said Evans.
He said if it’s not a personnel, property or a legal issue, Sackville council typically won’t go behind closed doors to discuss it.
“Every time we go in camera, we decide whether it’s appropriate or not,” he said. “We’ve had this discussion on many occasions and there have been many times where we’ve said, I don’t think this needs to be in camera.”