Town councillors disagree over public budget meetings

PORT HAWKESBURY: A suggestion by a town councillor to hold public meetings leading into the budget process, received a cold reception from some of his colleagues.

During the regular monthly meeting of Port Hawkesbury Town Council on Jan. 17, Town Councillor Blaine MacQuarrie made a motion.

“Council would arrange to have at least two public sessions for residents to come out and express their priorities and concerns, whatever, for us to take into consideration for our budget deliberations,” he told council.

Based on advertisements put out by Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) before the start of their budget process, MacQuarrie said this gives the residents the opportunity to give their say.

“We haven’t done it before, as far as I know,” he noted. “It’s about transparency; I guess that’s what I’m thinking.”

Deputy Mayor Hughie MacDougall said he did not understand the motion since any town resident can contact their elected representatives at any time.

“All of our meetings are public,” MacDougall responded. “That’s why we’re elected.”

The motion was seconded by Town Councillor Mark MacIver, who said this would be a good opportunity to listen.

“Maybe we’re doing it alright,” he noted. “I don’t think it would hurt to try it. We might learn something from it.”

Noting he supports transparency, MacDougall said town meetings are open to the public, and before council agrees to the motion, a lot of thought will be required.

“I guess I’m missing the whole point,” he responded.

Like the HRM, MacQuarrie said they could set dates and times for such meetings, which would take place before budget meetings begin.

Town Councillor Jason Aucoin asked who will facilitate such meetings and would councillors be required to attend, to which MacQuarrie replied that those questions could be answered with more discussion.

“I feel I would need some more information before I could form an opinion or vote on this,” Aucoin responded.

Aucoin said the town can set aside time and give residents the opportunity to arrange to speak at budget meetings.

“Before we try to pass any motion, maybe we should set some ground rules,” Aucoin stated. “I’m not against it, but I’d just like to know how it’s going to be structured, and how much time we’re going to give, and how many people are going to be allowed to speak.”

Early on in the budget process, when council and staff are trying to establish priorities and areas of focus, Finance Director Erin MacEachen said it’s possible to blend public input into initial discussions, but anyone interested would have to register, and there would have to be limits.

Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton suggested the town provide information to residents on the budget process, to answer any questions.

Taking off from those ideas, CAO Terry Doyle suggested allowing council to decide on a more formalized process that allows the public to have its say.

“Our budgetary meetings are not meant to be interactive; they’re meant for council deliberation. There’s no formal room for somebody to speak to that. It’s not like our public meetings,” he added. “But there are other models here that might bring a little more consultation. I think it’s really important that they be structured so there has to be information passed on to them.”

Council approved a motion to refer the matter to the next meeting on Feb. 7.