As I tuned in to cover council's virtual meeting on Monday afternoon I found myself thankful for some of the technology that exists today, which allows municipal councils to continue to carry out the business of the municipality in the midst of an unprecedented lockdown of public gatherings. But there are limitations, and they are important to note.
From the comfort of my home office I had my notebook ready and my audio recorder fired up to record the proceedings, not much different than when I am seated at the back of the council chamber to cover council meetings. Our seven members of council, also enjoying the comfort of home, save for the mayor who participated from her seat in the council chamber, were all visible on my computer screen, as were several members of municipal staff as needed throughout the nearly two-and-a-half hour meeting.
In spite of the awkward and unfamiliar setting, members of council were able to have full discussions on agenda items, and they were able to cast votes that were clear for all to see. As I sat through the meeting while sipping my home-brewed coffee, it was nice to be 'back at council' even if remotely.
What was missing of course was the public. As valuable (though questionable from a security standpoint) as the modern technology is for the purpose of a small town council meeting to virtually continue the business of the municipality, it simply can't accommodate public participation.
So unlike normal council meetings, there were no presentations from local groups, there were no questions from residents during the public participation phase of every council meeting, and perhaps most importantly at this time, there was no submission of the long awaited and highly anticipated staff report regarding the proposed pumped storage facility at the Tank Range.
It is fantastic that our councillors are able to continue with council business thanks to our available technology, but without the public in attendance and able to participate, it would be fair to ask if it is really a council meeting at all.
Though some of the more jaded among us would likely not admit or accept it, the fact is that members of council rely heavily on public participation. And while residents can of course still email members of council with their concerns on a given issue, there is much value to be found in hearing from ratepayers directly. There is value to be found in an empty council chamber as much as when the gallery is packed with residents fuming over an issue. Public input on issues (or public indifference) helps members of council know what issues are firing up the community, and that is important.
It is also important for members of the public to be able to ask questions of council in a public setting (even if they receive no response) as opposed to a private email. When a question is asked or a comment is made by a resident at a public council meeting, that question or comment is on the record, and can't as easily be swept under a rug or ignored.
Another consideration: though members of council and staff are very well aware that we media types will of course be tuning in to cover virtual meetings, I think there is also value in having members of the media in the same room, if only to serve as a subtle reminder that they are being monitored and their words and actions will be reported. It might sound silly, but psychologically I do think there is value in having council facing the public and the media during their meetings – checks and balances are important to any democracy, and for municipal councils two of those major checks are the public and the media, neither of which can participate in these virtual council meetings.
Public engagement in municipal council meetings isn't just important for those we have elected to represent us, it is also helpful to the media, as we hear from residents that we might not otherwise encounter in any other setting, and it helps us to gain a broader understanding of the temperature of the public on any given issue.
It should be noted that the public hasn't been excluded from the virtual council meetings completely. The municipal Clerk has encouraged those who desire to submit questions or comments prior to these virtual meetings, and those submissions can be read by the Clerk during the public participation portion of the agenda. It's not practical, and it isn't exactly the best way for the public to participate, but it is an option should anyone feel the need to engage in the process in that way.
So while I am thankful that we have technology to see us through this time, and to allow our council to carry on with the business of the municipality, I am looking forward to the virtual meetings being done and over with, and for a full return to the council chamber. But for now we simply have to make do with what we have.