We are in a serious public health emergency that demands physical distancing. Our civic leaders now meet electronically over wires, wi-fi signals, and computer screens. As undesirable as this is, the business of Council carries on much as before.
The public, however, cannot carry on as before. Even though citizens can tune in to some Council meetings, others, including Committee meetings are now completely blocked from public access.
For meetings that the public tunes into, the traditional ability to comment, ask legitimate questions, and guide local Councils has changed. As far as the public is concerned, civic democracy as we used to know it, is now under different versions of quarantine.
As the survey of Vancouver Island towns here shows, there are inconsistencies and even complete gaps in public involvement. We can learn by looking at how various Councils have responded, and what is revealed about the current state of civic democracy on Vancouver Island in the time of COVID-19.
Civic officials are ensuring the public can watch Duncan Council meetings online in real time via the City’s YouTube channel. But don’t go looking for YouTube public comments—currently, comments are turned off for the broadcasts of Duncan City Council meetings.
Duncan, however, appears to be making an attempt to retain some degree of public input. The City’s website tells residents they can email Council during meetings, and that Council will respond during the time allotted for Question Period.
At the most recent Duncan Council meeting Mayor Michelle Staples said, “The social media thing works, but it also misses a lot of people.”
Councillor Jenni Capps agreed, and noted that Council was surprised by recent survey results showing how many in the community have no internet access. Council directed staff to come back with proposals on how to ensure Council can improve on its present effort to keep public engagement.
The Town of Comox broadcasts its Council meetings on Facebook. At the most recent Council meeting residents weighed right in, making their own comments throughout the meeting because real-time comments are a regular feature of Facebook.
For a citizen following the Town’s business, this provides opportunities for input. However, at this time, it is a one-way street—Council does not respond on Facebook, and there is no indication that the Town intends to respond in other ways or read the public input.
If you follow recent news you may have seen references to “Zoom,” a popular on-line meeting platform. Tofino Council allows its citizens to log directly into its Zoom meetings, but only in ‘silent’ mode.
Council has expressed its intent to expand democratic involvement, writing on its website that it remains dedicated to accepting delegations. “We are working to ensure the Public Comment and Question Period portions of the meeting are equally and easily accessible to the public.”
Council placed a red alert on its meeting page informing the public that in the “evolving COVID-19 situation… meetings are being held virtually and will be webcast.” The City’s own web stream platform ensures someone with an internet connection can watch live or later if they choose.
Unlike some other towns, Council has not made provisions for public comment and questions in real time. It also appears that Council does not accept post-meeting comments. Here is what Council wrote: “Questions or comments on agenda items can always be submitted prior to the meeting by email… or by phone.”
Qualicum Beach does not allow residents to watch its council meetings live, but posts a recording on YouTube a few hours after the conclusion of the meeting. Council permits residents to submit comments by mail, telephone, or email. However, the public must submit the messages before noon on the day following the meeting.
Like other towns, there is no information regarding what happens to messages that citizens submit for Council’s consideration. In its “Comments from the Gallery” section of the agenda, Qualicum Beach Council does not take questions to be answered by Council.
Committee meetings unavailable to public during COVID-19?
It is quite understandable that Vancouver Island Councils had to make changes to protect public health. However, while different Councils are using various means to ensure the public can observe their main Council meetings during COVID-19, Committee meetings do not appear to be available for observation by the public at all now.
Committee meetings are often the first place where important policies and actions are considered by our public officials. However, it is not apparent that any Councils intend to provide public access to Committee meetings during the COVID-19 state of emergency.
What might we conclude from this brief survey?
Clearly, the level of public access and guidance to local leaders has been substantially reduced—civic democracy is under quarantine. Some Councils allow input by email and other means, but some give no indication of what, if anything, will be done with the public’s questions and concerns. Some Councils allow input in real time, others don’t.
How can we expect our civic officials to make informed decisions if information from the public is not available?
The councillors of Duncan and Tofino have expressed concern and appear to be taking steps to address this democratic deficit, which raises the question: What are the minimum standards that Councils should meet?
A simple start would be to accept public questions and comments in real-time by email. This is already being done by some Councils on the Island, so it is clearly feasible. There appears to be no reason why any municipal Council cannot meet this basic standard.
It would also be appropriate for citizens’ emails and other submissions to be read aloud during Council meetings. Moreover, these submissions should and can be displayed on Councils’ websites for all to see.
Another basic step would be to allow delegations to appear before Councils electronically. The Zoom platform is perfectly capable of providing and managing this. It is also possible for Councils to accept pre-recorded video submissions from delegations. Committee meetings, apparently now completely off limits, should also be re-opened to the public.
In the wake of the declaration of the COVID-19 state of emergency here in BC, municipal Councillors, including those in Qualicum Beach and Parksville, have taken steps to protect their health, that of our municipal staff, and of our local citizenry by moving some of their meetings online.
But unless Councils take additional steps to restore public oversight during this temporary state of emergency, using readily available technology, civic democracy will remain under quarantine – unnecessarily.