Bourgeois Democracy in Moncton
Debate over by-law amendments reveals deeper questions about how elected officials perceive the relationship between citizens, government, and procedural rules
“I guess we don’t define democracy the same way. Your recommendations, [are] sort of like enhancing bureaucracy than enhancing democracy.”
With these words, Moncton City Councillor Daniel Bourgeois elevated himself above the current decision-making process within council chambers, and expressed his frustration with a system that he seems to view as inherently unfair to him as an elected representative.
His aggravation came in the form of recommendations from the Enhancing Democracy Committee, an independent citizens panel chaired by Frank Vandenburg, formed in 2011 with a mandate to “explore measures to enhance participatory and representative democracy in the city.”
Vandenburg was presenting those recommendations in a public council meeting on Monday evening, laying out relatively simple changes to the Procedural By-Laws, allowing for councillors to bring business they deem urgent onto the agenda of a given meeting, provided there is unanimous consent from council to do so. In addition, the changes propose that “the time frame for the provision of information to City Council on a Notice of Motion be adjusted to reduce the current 3 months to 2 months, and to facilitate initial notice being given to members and the public electronically by the City Clerk, with follow-up at the next council meeting.”
The ensuing dialogue between Bourgeois and Vandenburg regarding the potential changes provided further evidence of how the current Ward 2 councillor perceives his role as an elected official, and what he views as barriers to the kind of progress he is attempting to make.
Bourgeois campaigned aggressively on a pro-police, “tough on crime” platform that has been a hallmark of his time on council since June of 2021. One of his first priorities was to introduce a notice of motion to appoint a “liaison councillor” that would address public safety concerns “in 4 or 5 weeks” as opposed to a committee that would take “months.” This was done while the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Moncton was in the beginning stages of forming a task force that would bring stakeholders together to address the very same public safety issues Councillor Bourgeois had run on. There was a lengthy conversation at council in July of 2021 surrounding the notice of motion and the issues it sought to address, and the motion was ultimately voted down 7-4.
After the defeat of his motion, for which he had rallied the support of fellow councillors Butler, Crossman, and Richard, the timeline suggests that Bourgeois decided to try a different tack.
In September of last year, as the city continued to formulate an approach to the issues of homelessness, addictions, and property crime in the downtown area, Bourgeois posted a call to action on a public Facebook group announcing his plans to “bring a motion to Council asking for approximately $750,000 to hire additional RCMP officers over 12 months to patrol downtown and the rest of the city where the crime wave is most rampant,” and instructing citizens to “contact your members of Council to urge them to support it.” The post also characterized fellow councillors who voted against his initial notice of motion as “naysayers.”
The post also invited citizens to “emulate” another concerned resident from the Waterloo St area who had presented to council regarding the issue of homelessness and property crime. At a subsequent council meeting following the post, a resident of the Victoria Park area gave a presentation about discarded needles in the neighbourhood, making direct reference to the language Bourgeois used in his post, suggesting to council that the hiring of additional RCMP officers would be an acceptable solution.
This series of events, in particular the fact that a sitting city councillor would go on a social media fishing expedition in order to achieve a political aim after being denied in a democratic process, are worth noting.
It’s also worth noting that Bourgeois is no stranger to conflict & controversy. In 2012 he announced that he was quitting Moncton City Council because he alleged it was impeding his chances of finding employment elsewhere – he later withdrew his resignation. In 2014 he was disqualified from running for the provincial Liberals in Moncton-Southwest due to allegations that he was “recruiting new members and urging them to just sign up long enough to get him nominated” and had reportedly used “intimidation and threatening language.” Bourgeois voluntarily withdrew from the race. In 2018 he drew concerns about potential conflict of interest after being hired to a three-year contract as the communications officer for the French Language School Board in PEI, an organization that his wife, Anne Bernard-Bourgeois, was the Executive Director of. The President of the Board insisted that there was no involvement from Bernard-Bourgeois in the hiring process.
Late last year, Bourgeois was in the headlines again after calling a municipal committee volunteer “stupid,” and misconstruing her words to suggest she was of the opinion that “[...] white men make bad politics that scare others from political life," statements which were contained in an email he intentionally sent to fellow councillors, sparking a code of conduct investigation. Bourgeois made a public apology, stating “I argued in defence of democracy in an overly passionate manner,” and no further disciplinary action was taken.
On the amendments to the Procedural By-Laws currently being presented to council by the Enhancing Democracy committee, the Councillor for Ward 2 took on an assertive dissenting tone, and offered some rather flowery language in response to how the council should approach its’ business:
“On any other issue, we get the information on Friday, and we have to make a decision on Monday. On 99% of those decisions, council has never consulted the public. So yes, I think it’s a very worthy, idealistic, utopian, democratic idea to say that a notice of motion would give us time to. But we don’t. We’ve never done it before.”
In another attempted defence of his position, he seemed to diminish the committee’s work altogether, as if aspiring to improve the functioning of municipal democracy were simply a waste of time:
“Since council rarely, very rarely consults citizens on motions with the current process, I think that argument that you’re presenting [...] just doesn’t apply – ideally, beautiful democracy, that kind of stuff... but that’s not how we do it now anyway, so I don’t think that’s a valid argument.”
As the exchange went on, Bourgeois seemed to concede his true underlying conflict with the proposed changes - they would hinder him from conducting his business in the way that he sees fit:
“The bottom line is you’re still imposing, on me as a councillor, a delay.”
“The citizens democratically elected me, to come up to council with that motion, but I was prevented from doing so.”
With his statements, Bourgeois demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of where the power lies in a representative democracy that is governed by the rule of law. He seems to believe that by the result of his being elected, he is granted power that is then handcuffed by procedural rules.
This is, to put it bluntly, a dangerous mindset. Representative democracy delivers an elected official into a body which is itself governed by rules. This is where the power of democracy lies. The official is simply an agent of the people; they cannot override the procedure of governance because they made campaign promises which they feel must be fulfilled.
As Committee Chair Vandenburg responded in defence of the proposed amendments:
“There’s always going to be something someone wants to see sooner, faster or better. That said, [...] that really only underscores the need for something like this, which by having the series of readings and making sure that things are documented and that only in exceptional circumstances can something be fast-tracked, that it does ensure that whether its reported by the journalists who cover council, or whether an interested citizen shares it with other citizens on social media, whatever happens, that there is that time for public awareness to take place.”
Vandenburg also made note of the fact that these particular amendments serve another very important function in providing council, and by extension the City, with a supplementary layer of risk protection: mitigating the possibility of a rushed decision leaving the community exposed to any unforeseen liability.
“If we take the example of a seatbelt, generally if the seatbelt cuts a little bit into your shoulder or your neck, you don’t cut it out of the car – you adjust the little strap that’s there so it’s a better fit for you. And essentially that’s what we’re doing, we’re recognizing that there are things that bind a little bit, that chafe a little bit for council, and rather than cutting the seatbelt out and leaving you with no protection, we’re recommending using the bylaw amendment process to make some adjustments to it so that it fits better.”
In his final statement, Vandenburg pointed out that both the New Brunswick provincial legislature and the Federal House of Commons utilize the unanimous consent rule for taking up new business to be voted on, and stated that “I can’t go along with defining that model as undemocratic, because to do so I would have to agree that both our provincial government and our federal government were operating in an undemocratic fashion, and I’m not quite prepared to go there. I think it is important for people to know why you’re considering whether or not this limits freedom or if this is a good safeguard [...] that following this puts the City of Moncton exactly in line with the way motions are treated and voted on and considered both federally and provincially.”
Councillor Bourgeois managed to jump in over the Mayor’s attempt to wrap up the meeting with a final rebuttal, stating “I never said that it was undemocratic, Frank. I said it was less democratic.”
It is the opinion of this writer that the Councillor is in no position to make that kind of distinction.