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Local governments need a reason to prevent public access to meetings - Ministry

Strathcona Regional District to buy $157,000 tech system to help allow public attendance
Strathcona Regional District board vice chair Brad Unger, chair Michele Babchuk and Area D representative Jim Abram cut the ribbon on the board room on Aug. 13, 2019. A new audio and meeting management system will help with livestreaming, according to district staff. File photo by Mike Davies/Campbell River Mirror

The Strathcona Regional District is getting closer to allowing the public to participate in board and commission meetings, as well as public hearings.

At their June 24 meeting, the regional district discussed a new ministerial order from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing concerning public participation in public meetings. The new ministerial order supersedes a previous order that allowed local governments and regional districts to hold meetings without provisions for the public to be present.

“The previous order made it possible for local governments to meet without the public physically present – a significant departure from the standard rules that apply to council and board meetings,” read the letter from Deputy Minister Kaye Krishna. “Order M192 continues to provide local governments flexibility in their meeting procedures while moving towards increased public presence at local government meetings where appropriate, for both ‘in person’ and electronic meetings.”

The new order requires local governments to make “best efforts” to allow public participation, either in person or remotely. If these are impossible, the governing body must make a resolution stating the reasons for the public’s exclusion, as well as the means by which the board is ensuring openness, transparency, accessibility and accountability.

The resolution can apply to a single meeting or to multiple meetings if the same circumstances occur.

Since the letter was received on June 18, one day before the board’s deadline for inclusion on the June 24 agenda, staff were unable to make a report to the board about the new ministerial order. A report will be made in time for the July 22 meeting. Since there was no staff report at the June 24 meeting, no action was taken on the new order.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in mid-March, the public and media have not been allowed to take part in any SRD board or commission meetings. Meetings have been posted on Youtube after the fact.

RELATED: Public, media blocked from council meetings in northern B.C. town for months

Directors Charlie Cornfield and Julie Colborne both asked for clarification on the process by which the public would be included. Cornfield had additional concerns about the public hearing process under the new order.

Chief administrative officer David Leitch explained that “what the order’s really stressing is that they want local governments to make best efforts to include the public… They really want local government to make best efforts to include the public, and if they’re not going to include the public, to make resolutions as to why they can’t.”

Staff will be looking into how the order applies to public hearings in time for the July meeting.

Colborne, who is also the Mayor of Zeballos said that people had been speaking to her about the lack of inclusion in SRD public meetings.

“We had our first in-person public council meeting last night, and the feedback we got was that this has been a true disservice to the public, not being able to have the public involved,” she said. “If we can move forward in a safe and secure manner either with public participation in person or distanced, then that’s what we should be doing.”

A second item on the meeting agenda also related to the public’s involvement in meetings. As part of their renovations to the new board room, the SRD had been looking into a new audio system and meeting management software before the pandemic. Since then, livestreaming and public participation also became high priorities.

“This is not something that shows up on every street corner, ” said Leitch. “We went out and solicited firms to put in a competitive bid to fulfill the board’s wishes, and got nothing back. Then we contacted a company that had worked with a number of local governments on the Island on their technology, and asked them to prepare a quote based on our needs.”

The district’s solicitation was to Pacific Audio Works, who returned with a quote for $157,548.97. The company has provided other local governments with similar systems, including the Comox Valley Regional District, and the Town of Comox.

The funds for the system are part of the reserve funds from the corporate office renovation project, and no further taxation is required for the system. However, the cost exceeded Leitch’s authority and needed board approval.

After no discussion from directors, the funding was approved.

After the vote, chair Michele Babchuk said “This is going to allow us to get the public to participate at a very high level, even if we have to be using the technology. This is fantastic.”

The staff report did not include information on a timeline for the project.

RELATED: Barring public from open council meetings exceeds authority: B.C. Ombudsperson

Still no public option for Strathcona Regional District meetings