St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe shut down Monday evening's regular council meeting after protesters in the public gallery refused to stay silent over the building of a permanent security fence along the harbour.

Spectators in the gallery were unhappy — and vocal — after council turned down Coun. Sheilagh O'Leary's motion to stop the city's share of building a new harbourfront fence, which the St. John's Port Authority says it needs to build to maintain the harbour's security standards.

O'Leary made the motion after learning the planned fence would restrict public access to a stretch of the pier adjacent to Harbour Drive. Council had voted in September to pay for half of the fence.

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Coun. Sheilagh O'Leary said she has a petition signed by 2,600 people opposed to council contributing to the cost of a new harbour fence. (CBC )

"What a bunch of barbaric boys club fossils we have for a council," said Deborah Jackman, one of the protesters who attended the meeting.

"You're really avoiding the issues."

O'Keefe brushed off criticism as sniping from members of the NDP.

The fence has triggered a fiery public debate in the city, with many — including Republic of Doyle star Allan Hawco — calling the structure an infringement on public access to the harbourfront, and an ugly change in the look of the area.

There have also been contradictory statements on whether the fence is even needed, with Transport Canada saying that it did not demand that the port authority build it.

Coun. Danny Breen said the confusion warrants involvement from federal politicians.

"What's interesting here is that you have Transport Canada, a federal department, and you have the port authority, a federal Crown corporation, then I would suggest this is a federal issue whether they need a fence or not, and I'd like our two federal MPs from St. John's to get us the answer," Breen told the meeting.

"What is the matter with telling us what the truth is between the port authority and Transport Canada? There's got to be the reason in there somewhere."

Meanwhile, O'Leary told reporters after the meeting that O'Keefe should have let the meeting continue.

"There's over 2,600 signatures on a petition from people who have a major issue with the city spending its money on a fence that's basically going to block them out of their own harbourfront," O'Leary said.

The protesters who were ejected from the council chambers say they will continue to oppose the building of the new fence, and said that the city has failed to consult citizens on the issue.

The permanent fence would replace a temporary metal one, which is enclosed when cruise ships come to visit.

The port authority said the new fence needs to be enclosed to ensure international security standards, and has said the city's ability to handle ships working in the oil industry is at stake.