SHERBROOKE – A Smithfield man is demanding that Nova Scotia Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter hold St. Mary’s District Council “accountable” for what he calls “a clear violation” of the province’s Emergency Management Act.
In an email dated October 9, addressed to Minister Porter and copied to Deputy Minister Catherine Berliner and The Journal, Tim Sawlor states that at the October 7 Committee of the Whole (COTW) meeting in Sherbrooke, “Council overrode both your direction and their published policy, and decided to not record the meeting. I believe it important for the public good for you to follow through with an investigation and hold council accountable; these types of violations erode public trust in a profound way and cannot be tolerated.”
Sawlor says he showed up for the COTW meeting as an “unregistered” attendee and was turned away because the room was already full to allowable capacity under COVID-19 gathering restrictions. “I did not attempt to pre-register,” he told The Journal in an email. “Life is busy and challenging, and I wasn’t sure what I would be doing. What I found appalling was [council’s] decision to override the clear guidelines and direction [about recording].”
The “direction” to which he refers is under Section 14 of the Emergency Management Act 20-008, effective July 29, 2020, which stipulates that provincial municipalities and villages may hold meetings exclusively in person provided that attendance doesn’t exceed the prevailing gathering limitation. If that’s not possible, the municipality or village “must not hold meetings exclusively in person” and “must instead hold the meeting partly or wholly” by video or telephone. Failure to comply could result in summary convictions, with fines per incident of between $500 to $10,000 for individuals, and up to $100,000 for corporations.
Sawlor added in his email to The Journal that pre-registering was “was irrelevant to me, because I had already been clearly informed directly that when capacity was reached, the meeting would be recorded.”
But in an email to Sawlor, only minutes before he fired off his missive to the province, St. Mary’s Chief Administrative Officer Marvin MacDonald explained that the meeting was not recorded because, “the pre-registered guests and those who arrived before the meeting started were all accommodated within the allowed capacity under COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, you were not pre-registered and you arrived while the meeting was in progress. Thus, we were not prepared in advance to record the meeting. We gave you the option of waiting a few minutes to see if any of the presenters at the time would be leaving and thus [created] capacity for you to be admitted. I understand that you chose to not wait.”
In an interview, MacDonald told The Journal, “I stand by my email. We were following practices that we had set out. There is nothing in the direction from Municipal Affairs that dictates to council how it should operate other than to ensure that meetings follow COVID-19 rules around wearing masks and appropriate spacing and group sizes.”
In fact, Section 14 of The Act is not entirely clear on meeting protocols.
Although it stipulates that gatherings involving more than the maximum number of people currently allowed to assemble in any one place must provide virtual attendance options (video or telephone) for the overflow, it does not remove the municipality’s power to set the number of participants overall. An “unregistered” latecomer could be interpreted as an “uninvited” guest whose admittance is not mandatory and whose real or virtual accommodation is, therefore, not necessary.
What’s more, the section only refers to virtual meetings by video or telephone. It says nothing about recordings.
None of which persuades Sawlor, who articulates the circumstances of his complaint in his email to the province:
“[On] Wednesday night (Oct 7), I attempted to attend the ‘Council of the Whole’ meeting of the Saint Mary’s Municipal Council held at the municipal building in Sherbrooke, NS,” he writes. “At the council chamber doors, I was met by Marian Fraser, Director of Finance, who politely informed me that the room was already at capacity. Given the current state of emergency and concerns around COVID, I completely understood the rules and quickly left. It wasn’t a difficult decision, considering that according to your direction issued on July 29, and the interpretation of that direction given to me by the municipality, the meeting would be recorded and I’d get to hear the discussed issues quickly afterwards. . .It’s clear they knew they were supposed to record the meeting, yet chose not to.”
Nor is he satisfied with MacDonald’s explanation. Retorting to the latter’s email prior to sending his own to the province on October 9, he shot back: “Quibbling over the details of exactly when a meeting is legally required to be recorded, and resisting if at all possible, is a pretty clear indication that council does not actually want the public engagement it professes to and greatly erodes both public confidence and trust.”
As for the threat of investigation by the province, MacDonald said, “I’m not going to discuss that until I find out what Municipal Affairs is going to ask.”