The Strathcona Regional District will not have held a meeting in public for six months by the time they allow public attendance in September. File photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror

Strathcona Regional District to allow public participation at meetings, but not until September

Local government will not have had a meeting in the public eye for six months

People who want to listen in on Strathcona Regional District meetings are going to have to wait another month, after the board decided to wait until September to bring in provisions to allow the public to participate.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the public and media have not been allowed to listen to live board meetings since March 11. Provided there are no changes to public health orders before September, six months will have passed since the last time live public viewing was allowed in an SRD meeting.

Early in the pandemic, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnsworth enacted a ministerial order that allowed local governments to hold public meetings without provisions for public attendance in place. This was set up to ensure the functions of local governments were to continue. That order was rescinded, and a new order put in place that required local governments to make best efforts to allow the public to attend, or communicate by resolution why that would not be possible. The SRD board received that order one day before their deadline for inclusion on the June agenda. As such staff had not had time to provide a report on the order, and the item was reported on in the July meeting. That meeting was held earlier this week.

RELATED: Local governments need a reason to prevent public access to meetings – Ministry

At the July meeting, SRD senior manager Tom Yates said that their interpretation was that “best efforts” were to be made and that the minister left broad wording on the details of how and when those efforts were to be made. Originally on the July meeting agenda, the suggested motion was to allow for some members of the public and media to attend the meeting in person and to essentially watch the meeting on the SRD board room’s TV screen in August.

“In essence, we’re trying to accommodate a few people just for the august meeting who would be able to see it live?” asked Cortes Island director Noba Anderson.

Staff confirmed that if the motion were passed, members of the public would have to reserve seating to watch a live version of the socially distanced meeting on video and that only a few people would be allowed to take part. Chief administrative officer David Leitch explained that their hope was to have livestreaming in place by September.

Though most of the directors were in agreement about postponing the public’s access, board chair Michele Babchuk questioned the board’s committment to transparency.

“If we really want to practice what we preach and consider ourselves open and transparent, and we have done all the work to make our staff and building safe, which is now open, functioning and serving the public, then I think it’s a little hypocritical not to allow a few people who wish to reserve a seat and watch the rest of us participate on a screen so that they have first hand knowledge… I think that goes against what we’re looking at if we’re trying to be truly transparent,” she said.

Most of the reasoning from directors was that public safety was a concern, though Babchuk reminded the directors that their physical attendance was not required under the motion.

“I really do believe that staff have done absolutely great work making sure our building is safe, and if we can collect money for taxes and utilities in here safely, then I have no idea why we wouldn’t allow people to sit six feet apart in a safe place,” she said.

The original motion to allow attendance in August was defeated, and a subsequent to allow attendance in September, provided no further public health orders are made by the province was made. Two directors, Gerald Whalley and Babchuk, voted against the motion, yet it was carried.

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

Still no public option for Strathcona Regional District meetings

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