Sackville councillors opt to stay online for now

Sackville town council's chamber with rows of empty chairs
Sackville town council approved bylaw 278 in the first reading this week. Photo courtesy of the Town of Sackville.
Erica Butler - CHMA - SackvilleNB | 11-08-2020

At their online meeting last night, Sackville town councillors spoke overwhelmingly against the idea of returning to council chambers in person for future council meetings.

Most councillors felt that online meetings were working, and that returning to in person meetings would be taking on an unnecessary risk.

Here’s Coun. Andrew Black:

“We still have an opportunity to do our business. We're doing our business right now. And we can make that work. Yes, maybe we do need to look at how we can get the public involved, how we can get the media involved. I think we should. I think that's important. It's a piece that we've been missing. And I think that we need to do something about that. But we can still do our business in this format, effectively. Are we at our best? Maybe not. Maybe being in council chambers is a little bit better, possibly. But I think that we're still doing what needs to be done.”

Coun. Shawn Mesheau was the lone voice saying he would consider a return to chambers.

Mesheau said that as long as council and staff follow protocols, he felt it was similar to many of the other activities that have returned to normal, sanctioned by town council, including the opening of parks and the return of staff to town hall.

“We expect our staff to come to work every day and do their bit and social distance. Can we conduct our work this way? Sure. Is it the best way? No. When will the time come that we say, now's the time. I mean, we can keep putting this off and putting this off. I think personally, we should try this, see if it works, and and see what comes from it.”

In response to questions, CAO Jamie Burke said the town would have the space to maintain physical distancing of councillors and staff while inside town hall.

He was not clear on what would happen in the public gallery, but indicated there might be a space for a handful of citizen spectators.

No mask by-law for Sackville, but other measures might happen

The last item up for discussion at last night’s town council meeting in Sackville was the possibility of mandating mask-wearing through a municipal by-law.

Mayor John Higham says there’s been some debate about whether or not municipalities have the jurisdiction to impose mandatory mask rules.

CAO Jamie Burke says the town’s legal counsel is not clear on whether the town has the jurisdiction to require people to wear masks. He also pointed out that a mask bylaw would involve a process at council and three readings at public meetings.

What is more of a concern, he said, was the idea of enforcement. With one bylaw officer on duty, he said he worried the phone would ring off the hook, especially when students started returning to town in September.

The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has said that masks are already mandatory in New Brunswick, anytime that physical distancing can’t be maintained.

In Nova Scotia, the public health order has taken a slightly different approach, requiring masks at all times inside buildings with general public access. There’s an exception for people once seated in restaurants.

Coun. Allison Butcher said that she found it refreshing to go into a store in Nova Scotia and see mask compliance very close to 100 per cent. Though she would like a mandatory mask rule for Sackville and New Brunswick, Butcher acknowledged the considerable process involved in passing a by-law. She suggested a public education campaign on current mask rules might be called for.

“I wish that we could put up signs that would somehow pleasantly and in a friendly way remind people that New Brunswick does have a mask mandate already. But the mandate is if you're going to be inside and you can't guarantee you're going to be able to stay six feet away from people, you need to have a mask.”

Councillors made other suggestions to increase mask compliance without tackling a town by-law process.

Mayor Higham summarized the plan:

“I think we have a whole set of... we're not coming to a resolution here, but what we have is several suggestions that I think is actually quite a strategy overall. One, a letter to the Chief Medical Officer of Health on the question of masks and harmonizing with Nova Scotia's approach. Two, asking for education and communication tools that the Chief Medical Officer of Health might have or be willing to produce about masks. Three, town to consider the public spaces of their public buildings to make it a policy as part of the COVID operational plan, that masks are required. Four, to entertain, with the BIA, about an inventory of how local businesses are planning to enforce the provincial mandate which does apply to them. And maybe the fifth thing is for the town to consider, because we've been looking for ways to help local businesses, to consider setting aside a little bit of budget for an ability to purchase some of those tools, communication methods, et cetera.”

Mayor Higham said he would work with CAO Jamie Burke to get action on some of these items within the next few weeks.