White Rock council has decided to temporarily move to an electronic ‘virtual’ model for regular and special council meetings and standing committee meetings (those which include all members of council).
But council members balked at going the electronic meeting route indefinitely.
In a decision reached at their Sept. 28 meeting they ultimately chose Mayor Darryl Walker’s suggestion to try the process out for the next two regular council meetings before making a final decision.
Electronic meetings had been recommended to council, in a report from corporate administration director Tracey Arthur, as “the safest way to proceed with city business/council initiatives” during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Arthur cited COVID numbers that have been “on a steady rise since early September” and concerns about a second wave of the pandemic as justification for increased safety measures.
But Coun. David Chesney and Walker both expressed reservations about removing in-person meetings entirely from the table.
Since the declaration of the pandemic emergency in March, regular White Rock council and standing committee meetings have continued in-person, but under physical distancing protocols, without public attendance and with some staff and council members exercising the option to contribute electronically (live-streaming and archived recordings of meetings have allowed the public to follow and review council business from home).
Under the new trial policy only the mayor, or deputy mayor, or meeting chair will be at council chambers in City Hall, along with the corporate officer and other administration staff, as required.
The recommendation received the endorsement of chief administrative officer Guillermo Ferrero and the city’s internal COVID-19 reopening committee, having reviewed the plan, agreed that it is “the proper approach in the current phase of (the pandemic).”
Chesney, however – noting his own antipathy to online meetings – also questioned the timing of the move.
“It seems strange to me that we’ve met all this time, and all of a sudden now we’re starting to consider (this),” he said.
“I personally have a difficult time with ‘Zoom’ meetings,” he added. “I find them terribly unproductive – people are talking, people aren’t paying attention. I think this job is too important to alter the system that we currently operate under.”
Coun. Scott Kristjanson and Coun. Christopher Trevelyan, while conceding Chesney’s point said they still, on balance, favoured trying the electronic option for a couple of meetings at least.
“Cases are rising, we’re going to see the big explosion soon – it’s already at my school,” Trevelyan, a teacher at Earl Marriott Secondary, warned, adding that three-, four- or five-hour council meetings in the same enclosed space would likely increase the chances of spreading the virus.
“I think we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t spread this disease,” Kristjanson said, adding that he was disappointed other councillors had not picked up on his motion to establish a mandatory mask policy for people using city public spaces.
Walker said that while he has found ‘Zoom’-style meetings relatively effective in city work with Metro Vancouver and TransLink over the last four months – he said he preferred council “being more together, face-to-face, as we are here.”
“There’s something about being able to look at somebody’s composure… even body language, that makes me get a better idea of what is being dealt with,” he said. “This is among the most important work that the city does and I don’t want that to go missing.”
A staff survey of other communities’ current meeting policies to study best practices revealed that they are “all over the map,” Arthur said, in terms of holding in-person meetings, electronic meetings or hybrids of both.
In Surrey, for example, regular council meetings are in person, with the public not able to attend, while public hearings are a hybrid of electronic and in-person contributions.
Arthur also noted White Rock council’s Sept. 14 decision to have the city’s select committees – such as the housing advisory committee and the economic development advisory committee – resume meetings on a staggered schedule, by electronic means.
Ferrero said council would not be locked into any decision on virtual over in-person meetings. “We can always change the policy based on council direction,” he said.