Bridgewater staff guide politicians on public comment about judicial review

by Keith Corcoran

  • <p>KEITH CORCORAN PHOTO</p><p>Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell said town council anticipated questions about the judicial review and the position statement clarified what could and couldn&#8217;t be said in public while litigation was ongoing.</p>

Around the time Bridgewater was filing legal documents pertaining to a judicial review of the South Shore Regional School Board's decision to relocate students, the town was also working on its public response to the dispute.

LighthouseNOW has obtained a copy of the position statement and fact sheet given to town councillors in early December guiding them on how to handle questions about the matter.

"Please do not speak in any negative manner [in public or on social media] about the South Shore Regional School Board or its members," the briefing note points out. "Such comments, while perhaps well-intended, could be taken out of context and be potentially harmful to the positive public sentiment that is currently behind the town's decision to apply for judicial review."

"Please refrain from speaking 'off the cuff' or straying from our primary position statement and the messaging included in this document," the statement advises.

It goes on to recommend, "when dealing with the media, keep answers clear, concise, and brief. When in doubt, decline to comment and refer inquiries to the Mayor or CAO or J.C. Reddy as the town's legal counsel."

Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell said council anticipated there would be questions, and the position statement clarified what could and couldn't be said in public while litigation was ongoing. Mitchell said it's the first such briefing note created in his time as mayor. He didn't recall seeing any position paper in relation to issues during his time as a town councillor between 2004 and 2012. However, he pointed out, the caution around public comment in a court matter is a rare occurrence.

A Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice is expected to make a ruling soon on whether to quash the school board's decision to move Grade 10-12 students to Park View Education Centre from Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School. Bridgewater challenged the board's decision, which will come into effect the next school year, and is asking a court to declare it null and void.

The town believes the board misled a committee tasked with reviewing the Bridgewater and Park View families of schools and set the process up for a decision that was already predetermined. The school board says there is no evidence to suggest anyone was misled.

Both sides met in Supreme Court in early March, after the town successfully applied for a judicial review last year, and presented their arguments to Justice Mona Lynch. The board failed to get the judicial review dismissed in December, but filed an appeal shortly after.

Meanwhile, town council, during its March 13 meeting, examined 14 form letters encouraging Bridgewater and the school board to engage in cooperative talks and concluding that "court room posturing is a waste of money."

Mitchell said the letters arrived after the legal process started.

"It's kind of too late," he said, "if they're talking about the money we've spent going to court."

As of mid-March, taxpayers will have spent about $113,000, and counting, on the judicial review matter. The South Shore Regional School's portion is about $90,000, while the town has spent an estimated $23,000.

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