By Steve Hubrecht
Recent bylaw amendments allow hybrid digital-and-in-person meetings to be held at municipal office if need arises
Invermere council meetings had appeared set to switch to having the public and some council members or district staff attend virtually throughout this winter, but last week that changed at the last moment.
The move was prompted by a scheduling conflict. The local Air Rifle Club had been practising on Tuesday night in the Columbia Valley Community Centre since November, on the same night and in the same building that Invermere council holds its meetings.
Both the meetings and the air rifle practices were held in the centre’s large main room, with a retractable wall pulled across the middle of the space to separate the two events. But even with the wall in place, the noise of the air rifle practice proved loud and distracting at a few council meetings this past fall. It was never bad enough to actually stop a council meeting, but the muted popping sounds coming through the wall occasionally made it hard for those physically present at the meeting to hear what presenters or audience members were saying. At times, those speaking would pause, waiting for a quieter time to finish their comments.
Council meeting participants (both presenters and council members) patching in to meetings digitally, however, often had it more difficult. At one point, Invermere Mayor Al Miller was attending a late November council meeting by Zoom (after being left stuck on the coast by the heavy flooding and landslides across B.C. at the time) and he admitted to those gathered at the meeting in person that, with the air rifle practice going on, he could not completely follow what was being said.
Simply moving the air rifle practice to another day was not feasible, since Tuesday was the only evening the air rifle instructor and participants could meet.
In an effort to come to a solution agreeable for all parties, plans were laid out for council to move their council meetings from the Columbia Valley Centre back to the municipal office for the rest of the winter (the air rifle practice was scheduled to run until mid-March). This entailed a small hitch, however: the pandemic is still ongoing and the municipal office is simply not large enough to fit councillors, district staff, and members of the public while still maintaining social distancing protocols.
So last week, at a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 4, Invermere council gave first and second reading to bylaw amendments allowing the council meetings to be held digitally, or with a combination of digital and in-person attendance. Council then gave third reading to the amendments and adopted them in a second special meeting on Thursday, Jan. 6. By the time the amendments were adopted however, the need for them was moot, as on Wednesday, Jan. 5, the Air Rifle Club let the district know it was no longer conducting its Tuesday practices, owing to provincial health orders enacted just prior to the Christmas holidays. Council felt it still made sense to adopt the amendments, Miller told the Pioneer.
“The Air Rifle Club is a great club, very youth focused and it does a lot of good for the community, so we wanted to accommodate them. Tuesday was really the only day they could meet, and the Columbia Valley Centre is the only venue large enough to fit them. But we couldn’t compete with the noise. So since council was only scheduled to have about five meetings until their practice schedule ended in March, we wanted to move our meetings,” explained Miller. “Then all of sudden the need to move the meetings changed. But given how quickly the situation with the pandemic keeps changing, we thought we might as well go ahead and make the amendments. It gives us flexibility, not just for any future scheduling conflicts, but hopefully for any other curveballs the pandemic may throw at us.”
Miller clarified that with the air rifle practice cancelled, Invermere council meetings will continue to be held in the Columbia Valley Centre, as they have for the past year and a half.
“Zoom meetings are great when you have no alternative, but it is not quite the same as being able to sit around a table and discuss and debate with council and the public in person,” said Miller. “We’ve been getting, by the standards of Invermere council meetings, relatively large public galleries at our meeting lately. Hopefully that will continue.”