Just because something can be done, it doesn't mean that it should be done. In a nutshell, that's how I feel about public planning meetings being held virtually.
It is one thing during a prolonged time of emergency to hold regular council meetings virtually in order to keep the business of the municipality moving along, it is quite another to exclude many members of the public from public planning meetings which are specifically aimed at engaging the public and hearing both support and opposition to a proposal.
When a municipality issues a notice of a public meeting, the goal is to hear from the public, but in a small rural community in which many have less than stellar internet connections, do virtual meetings provide fair universal access? Internet connections aside, in a community that is older than the provincial average, should we be expecting our seniors to be able to figure out how to connect to a virtual public meeting in order to have their say? I don't think so.
The average public meeting for planning issues tends to be a dull if not outright boring affair dealing with simple lot severances, or an addition to a home for example. They are often attended only by the proponent, and often even they aren't present. But the council chamber doors are unlocked, open in fact, and anybody who wishes can walk in and attend the meeting, and when called upon can share their opinions on a proposal should they wish to.
While most public planning meetings are hum-drum affairs, a few times each year there are higher profile public meetings called that involve larger developments that could have serious impacts on neighbourhoods or the community at large. We have one such meeting coming up on July 6 for a proposed long term care centre on the old MCS property on Cook Street. The proposed structure would be six stories, which would easily make it the tallest structure in the municipality. Many residents are concerned: they want to have their say before Council, and they are frustrated that the meeting will be held virtually.
In normal times, in order to participate in a public meeting all one has to do is show up at the council chamber, and when the mayor reaches the point in the meeting for public input, you simply raise your hand and step to the podium. Those who cannot attend the meeting can take the time to submit written comments should they be so inclined, but many, particularly in small towns, prefer to attend in person, and should they wish, be able to speak directly to council.
To participate in a virtual public meeting is a different ballgame that requires making arrangements in advance with the municipal Clerk, and then crossing your fingers and hoping that your internet connection won't fail and deprive you of your say, that is if you even figure out how to get into the meeting in the first place.
I have heard from a number of folks recently who are irked at the virtual process, and they feel that they are being cheated out of their legislated right to have their say at a public meeting. The proposed long term care centre in particular has ruffled the feathers of a number of residents, and some are furious that such an important public meeting is being held virtually. I don't blame them.
Sure, it can be argued that everyone with concerns is quite able to sit down and tap out their thoughts on a keyboard and send it off to the municipal Clerk, and those comments will be included in the meeting package for councillors, but for many that isn't the engagement they are looking for when it comes to major proposals. Many want to be able to look members of Council in the eyes as they share their thoughts. Some want Council to see a chamber packed to the rafters with residents, as it can have a powerful impact on the process – there is strength in numbers after all. A virtual meeting simply doesn't accommodate those desires.
In my Rants and Raves column in last week's print paper (The 3Rs - Rants, Raves & Rumours June 25, 2020) I shared my own frustrations with the most recent regular meeting of council. Technical issues prevented the municipality from streaming the meeting live on their YouTube channel as they have been doing during this state of emergency, resulting in a mad scramble to seek advice from the clerk, which was followed by a quick download and installation of software that I didn't even want on my computer, and then finally gaining access to the meeting a half hour in.
During that council meeting, Councillor Tony Bell announced that he would have to withdraw just an hour and a half into what ended up a four hour meeting because his internet connection was so lousy that he had been unable to hear much of the meeting up to that point, and any time Bell himself had attempted to speak, his words were garbled and lost to the ether.
If that is the experience of a member of Council, with all the benefits of a quality computer provided by the municipality along with readily available assistance from municipal staff, how can we expect the average senior in this community to engage in the process? Even me, the local reporter, had an exercise in frustration simply trying to view that council meeting; my frustrations would have no doubt been compounded had I needed or wanted to participate in the meeting.
As I wrote in my rant last week: Once this state of emergency is over I think there needs to be some serious discussion in this province about the use of virtual meetings for municipal councils, what constitutes public access, and when a meeting should be cancelled due to technical challenges. This isn't a Meaford-only issue, and I think we all need some clarity going forward.
In short, I think that holding public planning meetings virtually, while technically open to all, actually excludes a good number of our residents from participating in a process that they have a right to participate in, and that simply isn't good enough.