On April 4 three members of the citizens’ group Guysborough Communities Coalition, presented a petition to the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) council requesting the establishment of an open, town hall-style meeting between municipal constituents and council members.
George Nahrebecky, Holly Nahrebecky, and I, made the presentations, stating that we believe this type of open, public meeting, outside council chambers, would make for a more inclusive dialogue between constituents and the council.
In the past, we argued, the council has been perceived as being inaccessible, secretive and unwilling to engage with the taxpayers it serves. This has been a sentiment shared by many voters across the municipality. In my presentation I said “You are our elected officials. You represent a municipality of approximately 4600 residents according to the 2016 census. I appreciate you have many duties as councillors, not the least of which is to listen and communicate with your constituents. Taxpayers have the right to ask questions and for you to hear their concerns, and when appropriate, to challenge your opinions as well as your decisions.”
“We want to be people working together, building a strong, stable community, sharing goals and common purpose. We believe we can make the impossible, possible. We need to embrace change, not fear it. We need to think differently and approach challenges in a fresh, new light. We need to work together honestly and openly. We need to listen, respect one another, and think anew. We need to act now. This is called democracy,” I said.
Holly Nahrebecky echoed similar thoughts addressing council “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. 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… to give the information to people and ask what they would like you to do as their representative.”
Nahrebecky further cited a section from the Guide to New Municipal Councillors prepared by the Province of Nova Scotia: “Not all voters will necessarily agree with your votes on the council or the decisions of the council as a whole. As an elected official, it is your role to listen and understand these opinions. While you may disagree or feel this is a fringe opinion, remember that you represent all members of the community. They have elected you to serve them and as a result, you should do your best to hear the opinions of all community members, not just those who support you. Depending on your municipality, you may have increased visibility and recognition as an elected official. Being respectful and polite when dealing with members of the public will be helpful as an elected official and a public face of local government.”
Nahrebecky went on to add that council should consider holding council meetings in the evening, not in the afternoon, to increase public attendance, add a Q&A period after a council meeting, consider quarterly information meetings across the municipality, and introduce live streaming like other municipalities, for those unable to get into town.
Following the presentation, George Nahrebecky asked Warden Pitts when the council would make a decision on their petition. Initially Pitts said that council did not meet outside council chambers, stating it met only for scheduled monthly council meetings or for Strategic Planning- never outside those parameters. The 40-plus supporters in the audience protested, speaking up, verbally challenging the council and the warden. Finally, Warden Pitts indicated they would take a look at the petition and get back to the coalition. George Nahrebecky, not to be deterred by Pitts’ comment asked why in this public forum, council could not make a decision now. More cries and protests from the audience, as Pitts delayed his answer.
In between were the council members protesting the fact that they were not inaccessible. Miles McDonald, District 1 councillor pointed out he always talked to people. Talked with them on the street, at any event, in a store, etc. Holly Nahrebecky pointed out that perhaps people were not really interested in getting into an issue about the municipality, talking about fracking, raising taxes, lack of doctors, etc., while lining up at the checkout. And that was why, she explained again, an open forum such as a town hall meeting was preferable. Another council member, Blair George, District 4, a 30-year veteran, in rambling remarks said he would never hold town hall meetings in his district.
Almost drowned out by the noise in the room, Council member Fin Armsworthy from Canso, District 8, made the motion to hold a town hall-style meeting with all of council and constituents, saying “I know what my constituents want.”
His motion seemed lost in the confrontation Warden Pitts was having from the outraged audience members. Pitts threatened to have one constituent removed because of her loud remarks directed towards the council. Completely frustrated with the proceedings and the council’s lack of either understanding or care with the subject at hand, she stomped out of the chamber. Councillor Armsworthy repeated his motion after CAO Barry Carroll had to remind Pitts there was a motion on the floor. Warden Pitts finally acknowledged Armsworthy and asked for a seconder on the motion, there was none and the motion died. There were objections from the three coalition members. All of which were confronted with Pitt’s “out of order” remarks.
Once the public’s innuendos, cries and protests died down and the council moved to the next order of business, the audience in disgust, walked out of council chambers. In the hallway outside the chamber, audience members lingered, comparing notes and the embarrassment and distrust they felt for their council’s complete inaction and ignorance. Patricia Bates a long-time resident said, “The only way to sanction the actions of this council is to not have any of them elected or acclaimed next time around. Sure hope we can last until then.”
Mary LeBlanc a constituent from Canso, who was there with her husband Edmund, said after the meeting, “It is apparent that MODG councillors are not willing to listen to what constituents want, nor act on any requests. An opportunity presented itself to respond positively to a well presented brief. Only one councillor reacted because he was aware what his people wanted. The lack of a seconder to his motion is unbelievable. Very disappointed that the Warden tried to minimize discussion and had to be reminded by the CAO that a motion was in order. MODG constituents have to get more involved and put pressure on Council to do what its ratepayers want. Consider contacting their councillor directly and lobby for community input, planned rather than accidental!”
In some ways, democracy lived and died at the council meeting. It lived through the articulated and informed presentation supported by the constituents who filled the council chambers. However it died, although shortly after, through the councillors’ refusal to support Fin Armsworthy’s motion in support of the public town hall-style meeting. All of which was underlined by the complete lack of any sense of democratic leadership exhibited by the MODG council members and its warden.
The Guysborough Communities Coalition are not deterred by the outcome of the meeting. Organizing continues across the 8 districts of the municipality for additional coalition membership, with an eye on the next election. In addition, inquiries are being made to the Nova Scotia government’s Office of the Ombudsman to determine whether the council’s action, was in fact, legal and fits within the guidelines of the legislature’s mandate over local municipal councils.
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