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City of Powell River Council votes to permit online meetings in whole or in part

Councillors and mayor pass procedure bylaw, allow electronic gatherings
VIRTUAL PRESENCE: City of Powell River council chambers are set up to allow for meetings with people in chambers and online. City council passed a procedure bylaw making online appearances as legitimate as being present in person.

City of Powell River council has passed a procedure bylaw that allows for the city to conduct electronic meetings wholly or in part.

The bylaw also moved the inaugural council meeting after a municipal election from December to the first Tuesday in November in the year of the election.

At the January 20 city council meeting, council considered the procedure bylaw. Since the onset of COVID-19, the city has invested in equipment that allows for electronic meetings to be held. Typically, council has hybrid meetings, with some council members in attendance in council chambers and others videoconferencing.

Councillor Maggie Hathaway said what was before council was a housekeeping bylaw, to allow during COVID-19 and after, people to participate in city business online. She said she’s happy people can appear online, because it’s a convenience, but she was wondering about the prospect of an addition that requires the chair to be physically in council chambers during online meetings.

Hathaway said this occurs in other municipalities because a space has to be provided for the public to come.

“Maybe we might want to include that the chair be present in the room,” said Hathaway.

Councillor George Doubt said there had been a similar bylaw change at qathet Regional District. One of the reasons to do the change was because of the necessity for the chair to be physically present in the boardroom, he added.

“The decision was that it was getting in the way of having an electronic meeting,” said Doubt. “It’s something that takes some getting used to as the chair, to be the chair from a remote place, but the more you do it, the better it works. It’s a good idea to allow the chair to be wherever they can participate.”

Councillor Jim Palm said he thought Hathaway’s suggestion was excellent.

“I would even take it one step further that there should be the chair and a quorum should be present as well in the room,” said Palm. “If you are an elected body, you need representatives to be at the table and not just the chair sitting in an empty room. There should be four out of seven present at any time.”

Councillor Cindy Elliott said the intention of the bylaw is that councillors can be considered present when they are online.

“I’m okay with it the way [the bylaw] is,” said Elliott. “I know in some situations it’s easier to have the chair present but the flexibility of this bylaw allows us to not have to make changes to the bylaw if there is a situation where we all happen to be online.”

Councillor CaroleAnn Leishman said regarding electronic meetings, she would feel more comfortable adopting the bylaw in light of not knowing where the COVID-19 situation is going.

“It’s more difficult to chair virtually, especially if the majority of the council or board are in a room, so that’s something that could be handled by common sense,” said Leishman. “The person who is chair [online] can hand over the chair to the next in line, as per the procedure bylaw. I’m happy to support this as is.”

Mayor Dave Formosa said the province is offering this capability, which is something that previously wasn’t allowed, but COVID-19 came along and laws were changed.

“Now that they are making it permanent, we need to change our bylaws,” said Formosa. “Yes, it is hard to chair from afar, but with practice, it gets easier.”

Council unanimously carried the procedure bylaw.