Tantramar Mayor Andrew Black caught council watchers off-guard with a surprise announcement near the close of Monday’s committee of the whole meeting.
“One more,” he said raising an index finger. “I promise this will be the end,” he added peering down at his papers before launching into his announcement.
“The Mayor’s Roundtable on Housing was created in August of last year to initiate a conversation about housing and the housing crisis and how to address those concerns within Tantramar,” Black said.
He went on to explain that he had reached out to knowledgeable people experienced in housing and community development.
“The goal of this group is to network with the intention of expanding that network as we progress,” he said.
“Our focus for the next couple of months is to have a larger stakeholder engagement session… a large event where we pull in people from our community,” he added later.
Black referred to the similar Mayor’s Roundtable on Climate Change established in 2019 by former Sackville Mayor John Higham. It has since become a standing committee that meets periodically behind closed doors to come up with recommendations for council.
The mayor then asked Councillor Michael Tower, a member of the new roundtable, to report on what the group has been doing in its five meetings since August.
“There are currently nine members to sit on the roundtable with the mayor as the chair,” Tower informed council.
“The group represents community members from three of the five wards of Tantramar with backgrounds in non-profit housing, co-op housing, provincial government, local government, Mount Allison administration as well as student life, heritage and outside the provincial housing experience.”
Later, after Councillor Debbie Wiggins-Colwell asked for the names of roundtable members, Tower gave a list: Megan Mitton, Donna Hurley, Margaret and Eric Tusz-King, Jeff Faulkner, Natalie Donaher, Bob Hickman and Sadie Shelly.
During the public question period, Mayor Black said the roundtable’s meetings are not open to the public or press.
He explained that’s partly because a couple of its members were initiating housing developments that needed to be kept confidential. Later, he identified the organizations concerned as Freshwinds Eco-Village Housing Co-operative and Sackville and Area Housing.
Black said that’s why there have been no reports to the public or council since August.
As for opening future meetings to the public, Black said it’s something he could discuss with members of the round table to see if they are willing, but added later that the Mayor’s Roundtable on Climate Change did not not hold public meetings. Its successor, the Climate Change Advisory Committee, continues to meet behind closed doors.
‘Easier to exclude public’
During a telephone interview, Mount Allison University Professor Geoff Martin, who specializes in municipal politics, acknowledged that Tantramar needs to take action to tackle the shortage of affordable housing.
But, he said, holding closed-door meetings is another sign of the town’s disengagement from the public.
“The roundtable was appointed in August and we only find out about it many months later,” he added.
“Presumably it was appointed only by the mayor because if it’s a council action, it needs to be done in public and if it’s not a committee of council, then they can operate secretly and there’s not really much accountability.”
Martin, who served on Sackville council himself from 1998 to 2004, said four-year terms insulate members of council from the voters and the current reduction in public question periods to one, 15-minute session per month severely restricts public participation.
“Long-time residents of Sackville and even really all of Tantramar for that matter, will remember Dorothy Linkletter who would be rolling over in her grave now because in the late 90s and early 2000s, she was really a force for local democracy and openness and we’ve moved so much away from that unfortunately.”
Martin remembered with a laugh how as a councillor himself, he got a rough ride from Linkletter “more than once” during the days when citizens were to free to ask questions on any topic and sometimes interrupted council meetings.
“I was a third or fourth generation municipal councillor going back to other parts of New Brunswick and I was brought up with the idea that it’s always easier for the council to do things in secret, to shut down discussion, to discourage the people from engagement, but it’s not right in terms of democracy and it’s also self-defeating because if you’re not there for the people, the people won’t be there for you,” reflected Martin.
“The council may not realize it, but they do ultimately need public support for what they want to do and when things are done in secret, it’s very hard to get that public support because we also live in an era when people are suspicious of things that are done in secret even if there’s no reason to be,” added Martin.
To read the town’s background document on the new roundtable, click here.
To read CHMA coverage of the new roundtable, click here.
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report. He currently writes for The New Wark Times, where a version of this story first appeared on January 26, 2024.