New West opening up council chambers in October – but council won’t be there

New Westminster city council will continue to meet remotely for the rest of 2020 but it’s giving community members more access to council chambers starting in October.

Council has been meeting electronically on Zoom since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March. Staff recently presented council with a series of recommendations related to having open delegations and to opening council chambers to the public during the pandemic.

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“Municipal governments are now, if it is technologically feasible, required to allow the public access to their meetings, to physically access their meetings,” city clerk Jacque Killawee told council. “That can be simply for the public to come into chamber with me and sit in a room and listen to your (Zoom) conversation.”

A report to council included a number of staff recommendations related to council meetings,  including one that proposed the mayor, three councillors (on a rotating schedule), six staff, one camera operator, one member of the media and 10 members of the public be allowed in council chambers for council meetings.

“If my coming through the building puts someone at risk, I am not sure that that’s worth it,” said Coun. Mary Trentadue. “So I guess I want to have a better understanding of why we would do this, what is the benefit? Does it benefit the community or is it something that we are doing because we should be doing it at this time?”

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said he has no problem with council members attending meetings in shifts if that’s the preference of council, but said “it would be odd” to return to council chambers for in-person meetings just as the normal cold and flu season is getting underway.

Although she likes the option of having a small number of councillors attend meetings in council chamber, Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said she also feels the city should lead by example and should not be “role modeling” actions that may put staff and councillors at risk.

“I don’t think that we should be ashamed to not be in public,” she said. “I think we should be proud of choices to choose to isolate for the people in our personal networks.”

Reopening council chambers isn’t an agenda staff is pushing, Killawee said.

“It’s the provincial government requiring a return back to democracy being open and accessible to the public,” she said. “If council does not want to be in this chamber, that is totally fine. That is totally allowed under the order. The public can come in and listen to a Zoom meeting as they are right now.”

Instead of having council members attend meetings in-person on a rotational basis, council voted to continue meeting on Zoom until the end of the year. Starting in October, the city will allow a maximum of 10 people into council chambers and 10 people into city hall’s foyer to view council’s Zoom meetings on a screen starting.

For the time being, members of the public will continue to provide input at public hearings and opportunities to be heard via technology, rather than in person.

According to Killawee, the city runs “a very strong chance” ofrunning a COVID-noncompliant event and creating a safety risk if it opens up council chambers for people to speak at public hearings.

“We know of several cities who are doing in-person delegations, but we feel that the risk to staff and the public to do in-person delegations is too great,” said Killawee, noting It’s common for more than 50 people to attend some local public hearings.

Killawee pointed out that people don’t need to have an Internet connection in order to use Zoom, as a phone-in option is also available.

Starting in October, the city will also give people an opportunity to sign up to speak – by video or telephone – as delegations at council meetings. A maximum of 10 delegations will be permitted at meetings where open delegations are scheduled.

According to the city’s pandemic open delegation policy, all presentations must be submitted to the city’s clerk’s office by noon on the Friday before the council meeting. If 10 or less delegations are received, they will all be placed on the agenda; if more than 10 are received, staff will prioritize the delegations to ensure the greatest number of topics can be heard by council.

Several council members said they’d like to see opportunities created to allow in-person delegations at council meetings  – in a way that doesn’t put staff at risk.

“Just to summarize, council will continue to meet on Zoom until end of year. We can review that as things develop,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “Council chambers will be made open … for members of the public to be able to watch the council proceedings. We will also move forward with how speakers will speak, both in public hearing and in open delegation, as per the policy, but there will be additional direction given to staff to further evaluate how someone might be able to register as in-person speaker.”

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