Sunday, July 3, 2022

‘Lack of transparency’ growing problem at ECRL, says St. Mary’s council

Questions raised over use of ‘secret’ in-camera meetings

  • May 18 2022
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

ST. MARY’S – Councillors for the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s are raising concerns about the apparent lack of transparency at the Eastern Counties Regional Library (ECRL), noting that too many board meetings there are being conducted secretly.

The issue came to a head at the municipality’s regular council meeting on May 9, when District 4 Councillor Beulah Malloy questioned ECRL’s use of private sessions to deliberate matters that she said should be discussed in public.

“It seems like they [ECRL] go in-camera a lot for, perhaps, things that should be okay in public, like ‘Sherbrooke [library] service updates’,” she noted, commenting about the item in a report on the library’s board meeting earlier this month. “Why would that be in camera?”

In response, District 1 Councillor Courtney Mailman, who represents St. Mary’s council on the ECRL board, said, “I agree with what you are saying. That is a concern that I would like to bring forward to the board. And I have brought it forward before.”

Mailman is one of six municipal representatives from eastern mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton on ECRL’s board, which provides library services to Inverness, Richmond and Guysborough counties (St. Mary’s and Guysborough districts), and the Towns of Mulgrave and Port Hawkesbury. Roughly 74 per cent of the library’s annual $1.2 million budget comes from the provincial government; 23 per cent originates from the municipalities; and about three percent stems from fundraising.

Said Mailman at council: “There is a lot of in camera during meetings … and it does limit what I can communicate back to [this] council and to the public.”

St. Mary’s Deputy Warden James Fuller added that ECRL’s increasing overuse of private sessions is both frustrating to councillors and a disservice to the people they’ve been elected to represent. “I can understand that [discussions about] staff compensation [be] in-camera, sure,” he said. “But the update for the equity, diversity, and inclusion consultant in camera? I mean, I can’t even ask if that concerns us because [subject was discussed] in camera … I think there is just a lot of behind doors things going on.”

The Sherbrooke branch has been the nexus of a bitter feud between St. Mary’s council and ECRL since March 2021, when the former balked at the latter’s demand for 60 per cent more money—from $17,000 to $27,600 in yearly fees—to keep it open to the public 25 hours a week. ECRL then cut hours to 15, not including Saturdays or evenings, when—council and local residents argued—most people needed it.

The matter is now the subject of an external review by the provincial Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage, which sent letters to each of the parties last month outlining its plans to address the dispute. On April 29, ECRL expanded Sherbrooke’s public hours to 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., and 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, and 9:30 to 12 p.m. and 12:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays.

At last week’s council meeting, however, Fuller said the notice “goes along with what council has always said about these Sherbrooke [library] service updates. The only way I found out about the new hours was when they appeared on Facebook. I can’t even ask if there was any consultation because that was in-camera. It’s like it’s all done in secret. Finding things out by Facebook is not the way our community needs to have the service provided.”

In an email last week, ECRL CEO Laura Emery told The Journal: “The Eastern Counties Regional Library (ECRL) Board By-laws define when a topic should be discussed in-camera. These by-laws were updated at the June 24, 2021, regular Board meeting to include an in-camera definition to address any concerns about the practice. The bylaws take guidance from Section 22(2) of the Municipal Government Act (MGA). They were unanimously passed by all Board members.”

According to that section of the MGA, “The council or any committee appointed by the council may meet in closed session to discuss matters relating to (a) acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property; (b) setting a minimum price to be accepted by the municipality at a tax sale; (c) personnel matters; 30 municipal government 1998, c. 18 APRIL 1, 2022 (d) labour relations; (e) contract negotiations; (f) litigation or potential litigation; (g) legal advice eligible for solicitor-client privilege; (h) public security.”

It is not clear whether this applies to closed sessions by ECRL’s board. Meanwhile, Section 11 (g) of The Nova Scotia Libraries Act—under which the organization operates—stipulates that all regional libraries in the province have the power to “make rules and regulations for the conduct and management of the business of the board and of the library.”

Said Fuller at council last week: “I’d just like to express my frustration on the lack of transparency.”