As pandemic wanes locally, councils grapple with public access

·5 min read

Like other professionals, local government officials and regional politicians are preparing for a different way of working in a post-pandemic world.

While some elements of the ‘new normal’ are likely here to stay, several told the Valley Voice they’re looking forward to things getting back to some sort of normal – despite the advantages of virtual meetings.

“I have appreciated not driving 1,500+ kilometres a month to attend endless meetings,” says RDCK Board Chair Aimee Watson. “The time savings have been filled up by more meetings, so the transition back will be interesting.”

“There has been some good and bad with being completely virtual over the past several months,” says Kaslo Mayor Suzan Hewat. “Virtual meetings have provided an opportunity for those who aren’t able to attend in person the opportunity to either listen live or view the meetings afterward.”

“I believe it was a success,” says RDCK Chief Administrative Officer Stuart Horn. “The public was able to access the meetings in the same way staff and directors were. This accessibility likely increased public participation in meetings again due to potential travel time being eliminated.”

Transition to virtual meetings

As the pandemic swelled in scope in spring 2020, local governments had a problem: the business of government had to continue, and that business had to be public.

But few councils were equipped with the equipment or skills to allow for remote meetings. Forced to shift to online proceedings, councils moved quickly to adapt. Cameras and microphones were purchased, subscriptions to Zoom, Webex or other online meeting platforms arranged.

The shift was easier for some.

“The initial set-up was relatively easy because Kaslo was already video recording meetings, so we just had to set up the live-streaming via Zoom,” says Kaslo CAO Ian Dunlop. “Video quality was generally good except for attendees with a poor internet connection. Audio quality was a struggle and would cut out at times.”

That wasn’t the experience in Nakusp.

“For myself, virtual meetings were difficult at first,” says Nakusp Mayor Tom Zeleznik. “But we were very fortunate to have our CFO and staff, who are more computer-literate than most of us, to help and guide us through this new process.”

Zeleznik says he found interactions between participants at times became more difficult.

“The visual and audio during a meeting can hamper a virtual meeting which includes the internet connections failing, especially for some who have poor internet, who had to find a new location to engage in the meetings,” he says.

“In some instances, the poor quality of internet connections didn’t allow people to have both video and audio on at the same time,” agrees Kaslo Mayor Suzan Hewat. “When chairing meetings, this could be a challenge because you couldn’t rely on the usual physical cues that someone wished to speak, so other means had to be utilized.”

There were other unforeseen complications, like the need to change council procedural laws to allow for remote participation – basically, the Province had to change the rules to make a vote by a councillor not present in the meeting room legal. While that cleared legal hurdles caused by pre-pandemic rules, there were still regular headaches.

“It has been difficult to manage all the aspects of conducting meetings online at the same time,” says Hewat. “Staff and/or the chairs of meetings have to be watching for people joining the meetings and there have been technical difficulties to manage in regard to sound quality.”

Even more than a year into remote meetings, there are still the perennial troubles plaguing them. From technical inability to poor sound and/or video to connection speeds, the meetings rarely run completely smoothly. Nakusp’s mayor says that’s likely reduced public participation for some people.

But Watson says in some cases she’s seen a boost in public participation.

“One of my action items for 2021 was to start community planning discussions, with 24 unincorporated communities, that could have taken months to accomplish,” she says. “But due to the virtual access, we were able to do back-to-back meetings between places such as Argenta and the entrance to Kaslo with only five minutes in between.

“Efficiency and ease of access are benefits to having residents more engaged and they certainly took that opportunity.”

Mixed results or not, it seems remote access to Village council and other community meetings is likely here to stay. Several councils the Valley Voice contacted say they’ll continue to offer at least some access.

“We will continue live meetings with virtual access even as the public is allowed to attend meetings in person again,” says Kaslo CAO Dunlop. “Public attendance via virtual access is encouraged, as we have a small council chambers with limited seating. If social distancing is to be maintained, only three people can sit in the gallery while the meeting is in progress. Pre-COVID, we had seating for around 20. We’re not sure if or when we would go back to that level of capacity.”

“We will likely continue video and phone-in for directors to attend in the short term and then determine how things might look in the longer term,” says RDCK CAO Horn. “The public may want the option of continuing to be able to access meetings virtually, and we will be cognizant of that.”

Despite the real advantages to remote participation, politics will always run smoother when it’s done face-to-face, say participants.

“The downside has been strong disconnect between colleagues and the ability to share what we are all dealing with,” says the RDCK’s Watson. “There is immense value in our informal moments between meetings where directors are able to share the challenges and/or wins that assist each other in this work.”

“I am looking forward to resuming in-person meetings because I feel that the very valuable networking opportunities were not possible with a virtual format,” agrees Kaslo’s Mayor Hewat. “It is good to feel the connection with members of the group and to discuss common challenges, successes and issues.”

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

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