COVID-19 radically and swiftly alters nature of local government meetings

Digital council meetings on the horizon

By Steve Hubrecht

steve@columbiavalleypioneer.com

The way governments function is changing drastically and quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and local governments here in the Columbia Valley are no exception.

Last week all three municipalities in the Columbia Valley opted to cancel their scheduled council meetings – the Village of Canal Flats on Monday, March 23, the District of Invermere on Tuesday, March 24, and the Village of Radium on Wednesday, March 25 – as COVID-19 cases erupted across the country, and indeed a few cropped up here in the valley.

As several valley officials told the Pioneer, this pandemic is uncharted territory from a municipal perspective, and local governments are doing their best to adapt on the fly with the caveat that, naturally, this is no easy thing since the situation is rapidly evolving.

“Everything is in a state of flux,” Canal Flats chief administrative officer Adrian Bergles told the Pioneer. “The world is really is changing before our eyes. Things are changing literally up to the minute.”

Canal Flats cancelled its council meeting on Monday, in an effort to follow social distancing and limit possible COVID-19 spread, and quickly initiated a process to immediately amend one of the village’s procedural bylaws, which caps the number of council members who can participate in a council meeting electronically at two. Then, on Thursday, March 26, B.C. Public Safety minister Mike Farnworth issued a ministerial order that allowed, among other things, for councils to hold meetings digitally.

“So the need for us to change our procedural bylaw seems to have changed,” said Bergles.

He added that village staff are doing everything in their power to make sure Canal Flats does not miss a second consecutive council meeting, and this will likely mean the next meeting will involve digital assistance.

Invermere is in the same boat, with Mayor Al Miller telling the Pioneer that the “new rules (that) have come into play from the ministerial order allow us to have meetings electronically, and ease up on the need for providing input from our citizens. We want to do right thing going forward, but anybody who has been on a conference call of late can attest to the problems being had because of the extra volume.”

The March 24 Invermere council meeting was cancelled in part because the district office’s technology is, as Miller outlined, not up to par to handle a full scale call-in or video conferencing.

“The amount of items on the agenda (for the March 24 meeting) was slim. We were facing difficult issues in the office due to computer server issues, as well as COVID-19 in regards to some staff working from home due to quarantine from being away,” he said, adding staff are working quickly to fix the technical issues since as far as he knows the district cannot legally cancel two consecutive council meetings, COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding.

“Our techs are well suited to bring us up to date with video conferencing capabilities, and possibly airing our meetings,” said Miller. “The technology is being worked on so that we could take emails during our question period which happens twice during our regular meetings. Other options could become available. The one area we as a district were lacking in, in the past, was being up to date with our technology. If there is a silver lining with COVID-19, (it is that) we are updating that as we speak.”

Radium is also busy looking into digital council meetings Radium Mayor Clara Reinhardt, told the Pioneer.

“There is no template or history to draw from for an event like this … clearly our current reality is creating a scenario where we are in unknown waters and will be making decisions as events unfold,” said Reinhardt, adding that “there are a variety of tools available to include people via video conferencing. We will be exploring our options.”

Radium has a procedural bylaw allowing council the option of passing resolutions via email when time is of the essence, noted Reinhardt, adding that the resolution is then added to the minutes of the next regular meeting. “As long as we can make a reasonable effort to publish the meeting date and how the public can participate, we are meeting our obligation under the Community Charter,” she said. “The Radium team of council and staff are working together effectively, and residents should be confident that timely decisions are being made, and our future is solid once we get through this.”

The RDEK board of directors have not cancelled their next board meeting, planning to going ahead with their Friday, April 3 meeting, but with a new digital approach and social-distancing measures in place.

“We have encouraged board directors to participate in the board and committee meetings via teleconference. At the same time, we are looking at options to allow the public to view or listen to the proceedings from the comfort of their homes,” said RDEK board chair Rob Gay in a press release. “Under the Local Government Act, we are required to have the ability for the public to attend as well. While we encourage the public to take advantage of the other participation options, if anyone chooses to attend in person we will have social-distancing measures in place within our board room.”

In the meantime all RDEK public meetings and community meetings to have been held in March have been postponed until further notice, and the upcoming Columbia Basin Trust public input meetings have been cancelled. The RDEK will be launching an online comment forum in lieu of these CBT input meetings, on engage.rdek.bc.ca/cbt and will collect public input until noon on Wednesday, April 8. Those without access to computers can contact the RDEK office to request a list of proposals and learn how they can submit comments.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of listening to the public and federal health authorities. Each of us needs to be doing our part. This is not just about protecting ourselves and our communities, it’s about protecting our health care system so it is available for those who need it most,” said Gay.

According to the RDEK press release, the status of future meetings will be evaluated on an ongoing basis and updated as required. For more information visit www.rdek.bc.ca.

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