The gallery in Fredericton city hall's council chamber was packed Monday night as councillors heard concerns from residents about a proposal to build a new jail in the east end.
About 100 people filled the third-floor viewing gallery that overlooks councillors, as members of the public spoke largely in opposition to a proposed zoning amendment that would allow construction of a $32 million jail in the Vanier Industrial Park.
Councillors heard from 10 people, including former New Brunswick ombudsman Charles Murray, addictions rehab specialist Dr. Sara Davidson, public safety deputy minister Mike Comeau, and several residents of the Lincoln Heights neighbourhood.
"I have rarely felt unsafe in my community, but this proposal has forced me to think about what my life might be should this be approved," said Erin Mattinson, a 17-year resident of Lincoln Heights.
"Council members, I urge you to reject this proposal. I urge you to be the change. Let's make Fredericton a safer place to be by rejecting this rezoning proposal and changing the conversation."
The New Brunswick government announced in fall 2021 that it planned to build a new jail in the Fredericton area to relieve overcapacity at its four existing jails.
The province's desired location for the jail came out last November when Fredericton councillors were required to vote on whether to sell to the province a 25-hectare plot of land where the 100-bed jail would go.
Councillors voted 6-4 in favour of the sale, valued at $1,075,000, but it still hinged on councillors voting in favour of the land being rezoned to allow a jail.
Last December, the city's planning advisory committee recommended councillors deny the application to rezone the property.
On Monday, the motion to amend the zoning for the property went before councillors for first and second reading, which also gave members of the public the opportunity to raise any concerns.
Councillors voted 7-4 in favour of the motion, with councillors Steven Hicks, Jason Lejeune, Eric Megarity, Bruce Grandy, Jocelyn Pike, Greg Ericson, and Henri Mallet giving their approval.
Councillors Margo Sheppard, Kevin Darrah, who's ward covers the proposed site of the jail, Ruth Breen, and Cassandra LeBlanc, voted against the motion.
The motion still needs to be voted on following a third and final reading, which will take place during the Jan. 23 council meeting.
Concerns brought forward by speakers included fears that a jail could hurt the property values of nearby homes, while some said they would no longer feel safe with a jail located a few kilometres from where they and their children live.
Other speakers weren't against the proposed location, but were against the use of jails in general as a means to rehabilitate criminal offenders.
Murray, who served as New Brunswick's ombudsman for eight years, was the only person to address council, aside from Comeau, who spoke in favour of the rezoning proposal.
He said the nearest option now for jailing criminal offenders from Fredericton is about an hour away.
The effect is that inmates are taken away from their families and the community supports that would help with their rehabilitation and transition back into society once released.
"That's why I'd ask you to not stigmatize offenders and not see them as a danger," Murray said.
"They're our fellow citizens who will come back to our community no matter where they serve their jail time. … Do we want them to come back, having had the support and rehabilitation here, or do you want to exile them somewhere, cut them off from their family and their supports, and make their transition back that much harder? That's the real choice."
Davidson, meanwhile, spoke about her experience running River Stone Recovery Centre, a drug treatment clinic in downtown Fredericton.
She told councillors more housing and addiction supports are needed, rather than a new jail.
"Putting people with mental health issues and substance use disorder behind bars will not make our communities feel safer when the people you're incarcerating have no housing, no social programming or no social safety net to return to," Davidson said.
"It will perpetuate an endless expensive cycle that just continues to get worse."
Speaking later, Comeau said it's not an "either/or" situation between jails and drug rehabilitation, adding that the province was investing about $170 million this fiscal year in addiction and mental health supports.
Regarding the land proposed for the jail, Comeau said it would have been chosen by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure based on a points system.
He said the selected site benefited from being at least 22 acres and accessible by road from multiple angles.
Conflict of interest accusation
Valerya Edelman, a social worker, also spoke in opposition to the proposed zoning amendment and accused Hicks and Grandy of being in a conflict of interest on the matter.
Hicks works as a probation officer with the Department of Public Safety, and Grandy is a director within the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
The two didn't declare a conflict of interest before the motion was read and ultimately voted on it.
The two declined interviews about the accusation, and city spokesperson Wayne Knorr forwarded the council code of conduct, outlining rules about conflict of interest.