• Saturday , 28 January 2023

Electronic council meetings to continue for duration of pandemic

Joanne Layh

Due to the restricted ability to social distance in council chambers, Peachland council meetings will continue to be held electronically for the duration of the pandemic, or until other arrangements are possible, Peachland council determined at their August 11 meeting.

The last committee of the whole meeting was held on March 10. Prior to the pandemic, committee meetings were held at 9 a.m. on the day of the regular council meeting, but remain cancelled during Phases 1-3 of the province’s Restart Plan.

Since March 24 council meetings have been held electronically. The majority of the meetings have been conducted through Zoom and webcast live, with archived video of the meeting posted to peachland.ca for public viewing usually a day or two later.

A recent ministerial order from the province addresses the need for local governments to transition back to opening under normal legislative rules and requirements while balancing the health and safety recommendations of the public health office.

Local governments continue to be allowed to hold council and board meetings electronically during this state of emergency, however, under the new ministerial order from the province, they are now required to make “best efforts” to hold council and board meetings that are open to the public and to provide facilities that enable the public to hear or watch and hear electronic meetings.

That’s a challenge in a small community like Peachland, where council chambers aren’t very large. According to Polly Palmer, director of corporate services, the size and shape of council chambers will only accommodate seven council members and two staff in order to provide six feet of social distancing when sitting.

“Challenges would arrive if one of the seven people were to stand up and walk around to the washrooms, as there is not enough space on the east side of the room to keep appropriate distancing when moving around,” Palmer said in her report to council. “Having all of council and two staff in the room will not provide enough space for public attendance.”

While council meetings could be held in another location, such as the main room of the community centre, it would be at the expense of providing live streaming of the meeting, which Palmer says provides the largest viewing capacity for the public.

Moving the technology for webcasting would be impractical, council was told.

The technology is hard wired in the room, and the cost to move the technology to another room would cause time delays and be very costly, Palmer said. Staff were given a ballpark estimate of $30,000 to relocate the technology.

While continuing to hold meetings electronically is permissible under the new ministerial order, local governments that are unable to meet the public health office recommendations and requirements and hold open meetings where the public can attend in person are now required to adopt a council resolution to provide a rationale for the continued need to meet without the public present. The council resolution must also describe what measures are being taken to meet the principles of openness, transparency and accessibility.

In her report to council Palmer recommended that the municipality continue to hold electronic council meetings, with all members of council participating electronically, due to the inability to safely accommodate council, staff and the public in Peachland Council Chambers in accordance with public health orders, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic or until other arrangements are possible.

Palmer’s recommendation also stated in order to ensure, openness, transparency, accessibility and accountability, electronic meetings that the following be allowed:

• Options for the public to send written correspondence and questions to corporateservices@peachland.ca or phone the corporate officer before the meeting and have questions read out at the council meeting;

• Live and archived webcasting of regular council meetings through the District of Peachland’s website at peachland.ca/watch; and

• A viewing facility in the Peachland Community Centre is provided to the public to watch and listen to the live webcasting of the council meeting.

Palmer presented the following rationale and measures that are being taken to meet the principles of openness, transparency, and accessibility:

• Electronic council meetings are conducted in the same way a physical council meeting is conducted. Peachland Council Procedure Bylaw No. 2063 and legislative rules of an open meeting are adhered to;

• Public accessibility to the decision-making process of elected officials is provided through live webcasting. If a member of the public is unable to watch webcasting from home, a viewing facility is provided and advertised for every council meeting that takes place electronically during Phase 1-3 of the COVID-19 pandemic. The viewing facility enables the public to watch and listen to the meeting; and

• Recordings of the council meetings are archived and accessible at peachland.ca/watch. Council minutes are published as usual at peachland.ca.

Palmer noted that the recommendation is proposed for regular council meetings only and once a public hearing is scheduled, there will be a different format.

Peachland council unanimously supported the recommendation.

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