ARICHAT: A group of councillors was thwarted in their attempts to receive financial statements from the municipality’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO).
During the regular monthly meeting of Richmond Municipal Council on March 25 in Arichat, District 2 councillor Alvin Martell’s motion requesting information on the 2018-2019 sundry budget account was ruled out of order by Richmond Warden Jason MacLean.
Martell said the issue arose during the committee-of-the-whole meeting on March 11 when Richmond Deputy Warden Brian Marchand requested information on the account, but as of the meeting on Monday night, this information had not been shared.
“So apparently, the CAO is not responding to one councillor’s request for this information,” Martell told council. “Therefore, I took it upon myself to bring it to council, for a vote of council. If the motion is accepted, hopefully the CAO can feel comfortable releasing that information.”
Martell then moved that council direct the CAO to instruct the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to print and distribute computer-generated copies of the sundry budget account to all councillors immediately after the meeting.
Marchand then went a step further, requesting an amendment to the motion so that copies of the sundry account would have been distributed during the meeting.
The deputy warden said he is tired of not receiving responses to his repeated queries, and after eight months of having requests for other invoices ignored by the CAO, he was not willing to wait any longer.
“I don’t want to wait until after the meeting, I don’t know how long this will take,” Marchand told council.
CAO Kent MacIntyre said he received an e-mail after the March 11 meeting and responded at the time that the sundry account information would be provided during discussions of the administrative budget.
“Our last budget meeting, I did ask councillors to have some patience, as we are really digging in on our current budget,” MacIntyre told council. “This sundry account does not impact any part of this current budget. This is just an account detail and it is a sundry account, which essentially is a miscellaneous account. It doesn’t impact current budget deliberations. It doesn’t impact the current budget. It is for the current budget year.”
MacIntyre told council the appropriate place and time for such disclosure is during upcoming meetings of the municipality’s audit committee.
“The importance of that is when we disclose accounts and details of accounts, it’s very important that councillors get the full picture… otherwise they will make undue assumptions, so it’s very important that they have factual information,” MacIntyre told council.
MacIntyre said he consulted with an official in the Department of Municipal Affairs (DMA) who confirmed that the audit committee is the proper place to discuss this budget detail.
“I think it’s very, very prudent upon this council to follow a process and there’ll be full disclosure at the audit committee,” the CAO stated. “This is pretty basic administrative information…”
The deputy warden questioned why the CAO told representatives of Richmond County tourism groups during the March 11 meeting that there was funding available in the sundry account, after Martell reviewed the budget, determined that was not the case, and told the groups the municipality was able to fulfill their request. He said that is why he sent the CAO the e-mail requesting information after that meeting.
“I thought I was very clear; the item that we’re speaking about here has nothing to do with future budgets,” Marchand responded. “It has all to do with the current year fiscal budget.”
District 1 councillor James Goyetche said he was “disappointed” with the motion because municipal staff is supposed to deal with such matters and municipal auditors can identify any discrepancies.
“I don’t think my role here as councillor is to deal with administrative duties,” Goyetche told council. “I think we have staff that’s responsible for administering the affairs of Richmond County.
“… My responsibility and my duty as a councillor representing the taxpayers of Richmond County is to ask the people in charge of administering these funds, which is the CAO and our Chief Financial Officer, ‘do we have the funds available?’”
Goyetche also questioned if the motion follows proper procedure and said he is tired of these spats, requesting that council “move along.”
“I don’t think it’s a legal motion, I don’t think we can do it, and I think the CAO – according to the Department of Municipal Affairs, if you have checked with them – I think you have all the rights not to submit these requests…”
Martell countered that after the spending controversy more than three years ago, council is now expected to be more open and transparent.
“Now how can we be open and transparent when councillors – not the public, but councillors themselves, the governing body of the council – cannot get information from the CAO? I have a problem with that,” the District 2 councillor said.
Even if there is a budget process, Martell said the business of the municipality must continue, and part of that is disclosing budget items when requested.
The warden said that he could not support the motion to immediately provide information about the sundry accounts because the CAO is willing to sit down with individual councillors to review that information. Because of the advice from the DMA, and with an audit committee meeting taking place soon, MacLean declared the motion out of order.
Marchand disagreed and took issue with the advice from the department. He then made another motion to have the sundry accounts disclosed; a motion which was again ruled out of order by the warden.
“I’m very, very disappointed and this motion, to me, is not out of order in any way,” Marchand told council, asserting that the warden does not have the authority to make such a determination.
MacLean said the motion is out of order because there is an established process in place.
“It’s out of order because there’s an avenue in place for you to receive the information that you asked for,” the warden responded. “Now just because you’re not going to get it tonight, doesn’t mean you’re not going to get it.”
The deputy warden said MacLean had no grounds to declare the motion out of order, pointing out that Section 30 of the Municipal Government Act allows representatives to ask questions of staff when looking for information.
“I can’t believe what’s happening here,” Marchand responded. “This is shocking.”
After a representative of the department refused to weigh-in on the debate when asked by MacLean, and considering the disagreement whether the motion was actually out of order, Goyetche recommended, and MacLean agreed, that council get advice from its municipal solicitor.
Despite warnings from the warden that the motion had been declared out of order, Marchand kept trying to assert his right to have his motion sent to the floor for a vote.
That is when Martell asserted that council, not the Department of Municipal Affairs, runs the municipality, to scattered applause from the gallery.
“I’d just like to know how many times this request is going to be blocked by either yourself or the CAO,” Martell asked of the warden. “We have the cheques every month, how long does it take with the technology today to push a button and get a generated list? Is there a problem with not sending the list?”
Even though the motion was declared out of order, District 4 councillor Gilbert Boucher asked that his support for the motion be recorded.
Describing a sense of “déjà-vu,” during the 15-minute Question Period near the conclusion of the meeting, St. Peter’s resident Germaine MacDonald said experiences from the recent past showed that the department does not get involved in council disputes and does not enforce the Municipal Government Act. She also said it was odd that the department was able to give the CAO an answer, but unavailable to speak at the meeting.
If the information from the sundry account is basic, MacDonald said the councillors should be able to see those numbers right away, and not face resistance from municipal staff.
“For our councillors, who we elect and expect are going to ask questions, if they can’t get them, that’s the exact issues kind of issues that came up during all those years that made the fuss about everything and ended up in a forensic audit.”
Barry Landry of Louisdale took aim at the warden.
“I just want to remind warden MacLean what he was elected on, about being transparent,” Landry said. “I’m very disappointed. I have been away since a little bit, but to come here and see what I see here tonight from you and the CAO for a simple account, with everything that we went through here, you guys should be ashamed of yourself.”