For the past nine months I have covered Meaford’s council meetings through a computer screen,with each member of Council participating from their homes or businesses, and municipal staff standing by to answer questions or present reports virtually.
The many months of virtual council meetings have been both a crucial bandage solution that allowed Council to continue the business of the municipality, as well as an exercise in frustration thanks to inadequate rural internet connections, not to mention many residents feeling left out of the process despite measures taken in hopes of maintaining public participation.
Returning from their traditional August break, Council met on Monday, September 13, not virtually but in person for the first time since December of last year. Though the meeting was held in the opera house at Meaford Hall instead of the council chamber on the 7th Line in order to accommodate distancing measures still in place, it was refreshing to be finally meeting in person once again.
A handful of residents attended the meeting, and those who desired were able to participate in the public questions portion of the agenda while looking their members of council in the eyes rather than through an at times garbled internet connection.
As I arrived at the Hall on Monday, there was a healthy line of masked residents awaiting their opportunity to cast their ballots at the advance poll for the September 20 federal election. Upstairs in the opera house staff was busy with the final preparations for this first in-person meeting in far too many months.
That quick walk through the Hall lobby and up to the opera house provided the first real feeling for myself that we are getting back to normal, slowly, granted, but we are indeed inching back toward something resembling the normal life that we all recall so fondly.
For their first meeting back after the August break, the agenda was packed full of important items. Council approved the adoption of both the Community Safety & Well-being Plan, and the Transportation Master Plan; they approved the award of tender for sand for the coming winter season, they voted against the contentious planned dissolution of the Inter-Township Fire Department agreement with neighbour Georgian Bluffs, and they approved the installation of a rainbow crosswalk outside of the new library. A busy afternoon indeed.
With members of Council seated at the council table on the stage of the opera house, I found that they engaged in fuller discussions than they had when the meetings were held virtually, and all could be seen, heard, and understood in the absence of shoddy rural internet connections that more than once prevented a member of Council from participating. Residents who attended were able to stand at the microphone and participate in posing questions to Council in person as opposed to faceless voices patched in via Zoom for the virtual meetings. At the start of the meeting a presentation was made to Council focused on the local Pickleball club, and it was nice to be able to see and hear the presenter along with their slide presentation, something that was awkward and often frustrating virtually.
My hope is that we have said farewell to virtual meetings for good, save the potential use during harsh winter storms or other disasters that might hamper in-person meetings. As I mentioned, the virtual meetings were a temporary bridge that allowed our municipality and its council to continue to function as normally as possible under extremely abnormal conditions, and for that we should all be thankful for this wondrous technology that allowed those meetings to continue. But there is no substitute for meeting in person, to be able to look into the eyes of members of Council, to observe their reactions to comments in person, and to engage with those they represent without the barrier of a computer screen.
With any luck council meetings will return to the council chamber in the new year, but until then the meetings will take place at Meaford Hall, barring any need to reinstate strict distancing rules in the months to come.
Welcome back, Council and municipal staff, and to residents that are interested in how their municipality is governed, I would encourage a visit to an upcoming council meeting at Meaford Hall. It’s your council, and there is no more valuable input at any council meeting than that of engaged residents.