Port McNeill council had a spirited debate over whether to continue holding virtual meetings or move back to in-person attendance.
A staff report from Chief Administrative Officer Pete Nelson-Smith on the town’s meeting procedure bylaw was up for discussion at council’s Sept. 28 meeting, where it was noted that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments have been allowed to hold all meetings electronically since June 17, 2020.
Nelson-Smith’s report then stated that as of Oct. 12, “the Town of Port McNeill procedure bylaw will come back into effect and the rules … will no longer provide us the ability to hold all member meetings electronically.”
As such, as of Oct. 12, “the member chairing a council or council committee meeting must not participate electronically, and no more than two members of council at one time may participate at a council meeting electronically.”
“At this time, as per the latest Health Order (Sept. 2) regarding face coverings, council will be required to wear masks at council meetings, however, staff have reached out to health officials for clarification on this requirement.”
The report also added that all local government meetings “must be open to the public unless the subject matter falls under the closed meetings provisions in the legislation. The requirement for open meetings is intended to ensure openness, transparency and accountability.”
Further to that, the report then stated that council should “consider under what circumstances to allow electronic meetings in the community, for example, emergency circumstances only or to increase accessibility and create more flexibility for Council and Committee member attendance.”
Nelson-Smith added he ultimately recommends for council to either direct staff to “draft an amendment bylaw to the procedure bylaw to allow for electronic meetings and hybrid meetings for emergency situations,” or to direct staff to “draft a new procedure bylaw to allow for further improvements to regular council and committee meetings.”
“What’s your pleasure for this council?” asked Mayor Gaby Wickstrom.
Coun. Ryan Mitchell said he has read all the information available and he wants to see the current guidelines (allow all meetings to be held virtually) be extended.
“I don’t think it’s prudent to start meeting in person again, we need to take steps so we don’t get boxed into a corner,” he said.
Coun. Derek Koel asked if in-person meetings would be open to the public, noting he has concerns about the council chambers’ ventilation in such a small room.
Nelson-Smith chimed in and said all public participants would have to remain masked for the safety of everyone.
“The limit for the council chambers is 11, and one of the other things that staff will have to do is provide alternate means for the public to view the council meetings if we get up to our limit within the council chambers, which would mean a viewing room — we’ll still continue to livestream the meetings to make public transparency continue.”
Wickstrom added staff is looking for direction on whether to amend the bylaw or to look at a brand new procedure bylaw.
Koel noted the current bylaw says two councillors can attend virtually, so council doesn’t have to do anything if it doesn’t want to.
He added he doesn’t think council needs to change the bylaw when they can just revert back to using the our old bylaw.
“How do we make that equitable, councillor Koel?” asked Wickstrom, adding they need specific rules in place to deal with the issue of virtual meetings. “Either way moving forward we’re going to have to update the procedure bylaw.”
Nelson-Smith noted if council chooses to do nothing then that means they would simply revert back to the current procedure bylaw.
He added if council doesn’t set limitations on the availability of electronic meetings, technically someone from Nanaimo could run for a council seat, and if elected, never have to attend Port McNeill council meetings in person.
Coun. Shelley Downey said as long as the health procedures are being followed properly, she feels it’s “time we gather again and my recommendation would be for staff to rewrite, or [do] a complete revisit of our bylaw.”
Wickstrom agreed, nothing there are definitely a few glaring omissions from the current bylaw.
“There’s lot of items in there … that we don’t have,” she said.
Koel jumped in again and put forth a motion to change the bylaw so that everyone at the council table can participate electronically for another six months, which was seconded by Mitchell.
“My reason for that is I think it’s a good compromise,” Koel said, adding that we are in uncertain times and he doesn’t want to rush through revisions to such an important document as the procedure bylaw.
Wickstrom said she would be voting against Koel’s motion and is ready for in-person meetings to start up again.
Downey and Coun. Ann-Marie Baron both agreed with Wickstrom, and Koel’s motion was defeated by a 3-2 vote.
Wickstrom then put forward a motion to direct staff to get them a cost for setting up Wi-Fi at the community hall, a venue that should be large enough to put everyone’s concerns at ease.
The motion was approved.
Wickstrom posted on her official Facebook account that the town will be “resuming full council, in-person meetings which will be held at the Community Hall. The public will be able to attend. Masks are required.”
She added that the town will be installing Wi-Fi, “but it may not be done by our first meeting on Oct. 12. If that is the case, we will record and upload later for the public to view.”
Video of Port McNeill council meetings can be viewed HERE
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