A B.C. government plan to keep online meetings and public hearings available as an option for local governments after pandemic restrictions are lifted is a double-edged sword, says Sooke Mayor Maja Tait.
“There are positives in trying to encourage public participation in municipal government, but in some ways, it also seems to be a barrier,” Tait said.
In introducing amendments in the B.C. legislature earlier this month, the province said giving people more options to participate in public meetings is more equitable to those who face barriers to joining in person.
The new law would allow communities to do a mix of virtual, in-person or hybrid meetings while maintaining “transparency safeguards.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all our lives, and local governments have been on the frontlines delivering the critical services people in communities count on. The lessons we’ve learned during the past year have shown us how we can do things better,” Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne said.
The legislation also allows municipalities to pass bylaws to allow expanded eligibility for mail-in voting and authority to borrow from financial reserves to cover operating expenses and repay later.
Tait favours a hybrid online model to what exists now.
She said more financial support and IT resources would need to be implemented to make it work.
“There are lots of glitches in the current system,” she said.
Several times over the last year, council meetings needed to be postponed or delayed because of technical difficulties. The meetings also draw few onlookers. (Only five viewers were recorded from council’s May 10 online meeting).
Tait said one of the problems with online meetings, which municipalities have been forced into over the last year due to COVID-19, is the inability to pick up on non-verbal communication cues you detect at an in-person public meeting.
”We’ve been able to do business and continue, which is great, but I really miss being in the meeting in chambers with the public,” she said.
Tait hopes the province consults with local governments before the new rules are enshrined in legislation.