District of Sparwood logo and flag. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

Local governments on navigating COVID-19

Local governments in B.C. were left to figure out the best way to engage with the public after in-person meetings were stopped

As British Columbia moves through the stages of opening up to allow public gatherings indoors, local municipalities are beginning to allow in-person meetings with public attendance again after over a year of streaming meetings online.

When public health orders came through that restricted public gatherings (and therefore public attendance at council meetings up and down the valley and in the regional district), each municipality had to change tact so community engagement could continue after social-distancing measures were deemed to be not enough.

At the RDEK, cameras for every director were installed in the board room and meetings were streamed on zoom.

The District of Sparwood, which was already recording meetings before the pandemic so residents could watch at their convenience, switched to zoom and added Facebook livestreaming later on.

The City of Fernie had a camera on every councillor and city staff member in meetings and retained that through the pandemic when it went online.

Both Fernie and Sparwood record their meetings for later viewing, while the RDEK and Elkford currently do not.

In Elkford meetings were originally switched to a larger venue where social distancing could be maintained, but eventually switched to streaming via zoom from the district’s council chambers after all public gatherings were restricted.

Each local government had to invest time and money into responding to the changing public health orders to ensure that public engagement could continue uninterrupted, such as new, better webcams, recording equipment, plexiglass for councillors still attending in-person, zoom memberships and additional training for staff.

The leaders at each municipality said they were proud of staff efforts taken immediately after public health orders starting restricting the public’s ability to engage with meetings in person. Conversation has now turned up what happens next. Now that so much has been invested and staff are used to the measures, do they keep the online engagement in place while going back in person as well?

For Fernie, that answer was a resounding yes, with some meetings viewed by more than a thousand people since the city embraced zoom.

“We will definitely be keeping the zoom tile format and continue streaming our meetings,” said Fernie Mayor Ange Qualizza.

“Having the community be able to see staff presentations, and watch the meeting in this format is just such a great way to support our communication goals, and hopefully encourage the community to stay with us in conversation.

“With so many more people watching us, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to answer some pretty articulate questions about some of the projects we are doing. It’s really been a very successful communication tool we might never have tried without the pandemic,” she said.

Mayor David Wilks of Sparwood said that they would also be retaining the online engagement while transitioning back to allowing in-person public engagement.

“Not everyone will be comfortable coming in to Council Chambers so maintaining our virtual options will provide those residents with an option to connect with Council. Council has always worked toward increasing accessibility and over the course of the pandemic we have seen the benefits of providing virtual access to residents.

Director Rob Gay of the RDEK said for them it was an ongoing conversation whether they’d retain what they’d already implemented, but the benefits of going online – and the need to retain the old-fashioned way of conducting meetings was evident both for directors on the board, and members of the public that didn’t have access to reliable internet.

“We recently did a survey with Directors and, while there was a very strong desire for the Board to resume in person meetings, we recognise the advantage the remote model posed for our delegations, who were able to present without having to travel to Cranbrook as they had in the past,” he said.

“We will be utilizing some of the COVID-relief funding provided to the RDEK to enhance our ability to stream meetings. Once installed, this will provide a different look for the public, but the same ability to stream. Our July Board Meeting will continue to be run via Zoom and our staff will be working on how to re-retrofit the Board Room to be able to reopen it to the public and media for August. While we as a Board were happy to support the public health orders and stay home, it really taught us the value of meeting in person.

“The takeaway from the pandemic will be looking at how we can continue to utilize technology when and where it is practical to do so, while continuing to stay true to our rural roots and the face-to-face communications we have all been missing,” said Gay.

In Elkford, the district allowed in-person public attendance from July 26, and opted to retain the zoom dial-in option for residents.

Across the board, the mayors said that public engagement in meetings was better, despite the challenges.

“Public engagement is much better using this new format as a whole, but of course we can’t wait to get back to in person meetings, in person town hall style meetings and just seeing the community informally,” said Qualizza.

“In a small town those conversations happen everywhere, and I am very much looking forward to seeing people again.”

Mayor Dean McKerracher said that in Elkford, they saw a slight increase in engagement, while Wilks said the potential of reaching more people wasn’t lost on Sparwood.

“Providing multiple avenues for residents to engage is beneficial to our community, increasing council’s accessibility,” he said.

Engagement with issues from the community was a mixed bag though, he added, saying that while there was an increase in engagement, “it has also been hard for Council and residents not to have the in person interactions – discussions over Zoom are much more difficult and we do miss having the face to face discussions and interactions and conversations.”

Gay said that for the RDEK, the quick shift to online and the crash course in learning how to engage the public virtually had yielded lessons that weren’t soon to be forgotten.

“One of the biggest (lessons) was having the ability to quickly adapt to a remote model to be able to continue to have the public engagement in our meetings. We are now well positioned to make that transition seamlessly if, for any reason, we have to move to a remote meeting.

“While the number of delegations may have increased slightly overall, the bigger impact would be that the remote model made it easier for the public and delegations to participate in our meetings as they did not have to travel to Cranbrook. Given the size of our regional district, this is significant. I also felt there were some advantages using virtual meetings in the way it created a more comfortable environment for some people to participate who may not otherwise become engaged, as it provided a safe, controlled environment for them to ask questions,” he said.

While B.C. is currently entering a reported fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, indoor organized gatherings are loosely regulated, and the majority of cases are in the Central Okanagan region.

READ MORE: ‘Disappointing’ vandalism of district property in Sparwood



scott.tibballs@thefreepress.ca
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