Meeting gets testy

Group fails to get town hall meeting with MODG council

By Helen Murphy    

GUYSBOROUGH – Last Wednesday's meeting of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough was unusually raucous. A group of residents looking to address what it says is a lack of transparency and accountability from the MODG council failed to get agreement for a town hall meeting following its presentation to council on April 4.

After opening remarks by George Nahrebecky, Alexander Bridge and Holly Nahrebecky of the Guysborough Communities Coalition made presentations calling for greater openness by council and requesting a town hall meeting where residents could raise concerns and get answers to their questions. About 30 to 40 citizens filled the gallery in council chambers.

The group's bid for a town hall meeting with council failed after Councillor Finn Armsworthy made a motion to have such a meeting, but there was no seconder -- so there was no debate or vote on the matter.

Bridge told The Journal in a interview that the group was disappointed in how their petition to council was handled, with Warden Vernon Pitts indicating council normally refers such matters to staff for review and a recommendation for council.

"Here we were at an open forum meeting; why not take a vote and let us know?" asked Bridge.

The meeting "got a little confrontational," Bridge acknowledged.

Warden Pitts told The Journal he felt the group was trying to bully and intimidate council.

"I felt that the bullying was coming from the council," said Bridge. "It was a very emotional meeting."

In interviews with The Journal and other media, the warden criticized the group for not staying after the discussion for the tabling of reports on various aspects of municipal business.

Bridge told The Journal the group left before the meeting ended out of frustration. He said the group realized "we have no voice here, and we walked out.

"I'm glad in a way that we have come to this impasse," Bridge told The Journal. "We know exactly where we stand with the council."

As for next steps, Bridge said the community group will look at provincial legislation to see "whether MODG has the right to do what they did." They also plan to contact the office of the provincial ombudsman.

"In the meantime we will continue to grow our coalition." He said the group would like to set up town hall meetings in each district "with or without councillors."

The Journal asked Bridge what he thought could be done to make exchanges between the two sides more respectful.

"I know that when the three of us went in to present we did it in a very tempered way," he said. "I think it would behoove us to sit down with Vernon Pitts and talk this through and also engage with some other council members...If the three of us were to sit down with him at the municipal office and talk through this, that might help us. That's one of the things I'd like to see."

Warden Pitts told The Journal he was impressed with the presentation. "It was well put together," he said. He added that contrary to some rumours going around, he did not "kick anyone out of council chambers." He said he had to caution a woman in the crowd for her outburst. "We don't tolerate that in chambers," he said. The warden said he warned the woman if she did it again he would have to ask her to leave. Pitts said the woman made an offensive gesture at him and then left.

"One of the things I really didn't like is there was no respect for council," Pitts said.

"They wanted our answer right away," he said. "They wanted action immediately. I said that's not the way we do business."

Pitts was critical of the group for not attending other public meetings of council, including one two weeks ago, where 47 amendments to MODG's land-use planning strategy were passed. "I didn't see any of them there. It was an open, public meeting."

He added that MODG holds open houses when major projects are being considered.

"They are looking for a soapbox," said Pitts. "I'm not going to give them a soapbox.

"If you have any questions... pick up the phone, send a text, send an email. We'll do everything we can to sit down with you and answer your questions." He said residents are also welcome to contact their MLA or the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

"Failing all that, in two-and-a-half years, there is an election."

In his presentation to council, Bridge called for "interactive dialogue" between residents and council. He said an "open, town hall meeting can be a positive starting point for this community conversation. We the taxpayers, who elected you, need access to council, not just via your municipal website, or the occasional newspaper story, but by other forms of communication."

Bridge noted that much of the local population is elderly, many are not computer savvy and some no longer drive. "This sector needs to be kept informed too. Many of these people live in the outlying areas of the county, so getting to...Guysborough can be difficult."

"We want to be people working together, building a strong, stable community, sharing goals and common purpose.”

He told council that the group's petition was to "give everyone in this municipality, no matter the many differing points-of-view, a voice; beginning first with an open, town hall-style meeting. We will accept nothing less."

In her remarks to council on behalf of the group, Holly Nahrebecky said council should consult with residents before making important decisions.

"You have been elected to represent your area's constituents and to make decisions based on what direction the people you represent want to go," she said. There are decisions where councillors have a responsibility to find out what the majority of their constituents think about these issues before a decision is made."

Nahrebecky added that the structure of meetings and reporting from them makes it hard for residents to feel informed and engaged.

"If we look back at MODG council meetings you notice many meetings are typically short, only 15 to 30 minutes long," she said. "In many of those meetings there are “in camera” or closed sessions at the beginning of the meetings instead of at the end, as in other municipalities. This does not encourage constituents to attend meetings since they may be driving long distances and then asked to stand in the hallway for an unknown period of time. There are motions made and passed but we don't see or hear any discussion regarding the pros and cons, or where the idea for the motion even came from, almost as if they are 'pre-discussed.' There are brief verbal reports given by councillors who sit on committees but no written reports attached to the minutes."

In addition to a town hall meeting, Holly Nahrebecky offered other ideas for increasing citizens’ engagement.

“Things like a semi-annual meet-and-greet community meeting in each district with the councillor and their constituents, a short question-and-answer period at the end of each council meeting for the general public to ask a question or two, all in-camera sessions held at the end of council meetings, live-stream meetings so those in the far reaches of the municipality can virtually attend meetings.”

MODG’s CAO Barry Carroll told The Journal that in-camera sessions are normally held at the end of meetings. An exception was made a few months ago, he said, because a developer was only able to meet with council at the earlier time.