Vancouver City Council has voted in favour of bringing a hybrid model to council meetings, even after some members (including the mayor) recently said that they would not likely be returning to the chamber for some time due to the current number of COVID-19 cases.
Six City staffers joined Mayor Kennedy Stewart along with Green councillor Adriane Carr and former-NPA councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung in the chamber as they debated and voted on an amendment to a procedure by-law Sept 21, while the remainder of council (save for Rebecca Bligh, who was absent) and the City Manager were beamed in using WebEx online meeting software.
The City's authority to hold electronic meetings under a Ministerial Order is set to expire Sept 28, meaning that without any action being taken they would then all have to return to work in-person.
What they voted on today will allow those who want to return to chamber to do so, as well as allowing others to attend the meetings digitally.
All of the standard COVID-19 protocols are in place at City Hall, with mask-wearing being mandatory and physical distancing encouraged, however, people attending council meetings do not need to prove their vaccination status.
Kirby-Yung spoke saying that “Council needs to lead by example” and show how the return to work can be done safely. In a phone interview with V.I.A. after the meeting she noted that while the flexibility of allowing for digital meetings is handy, it "doesn't replace" in-person meetings, and other municipalities such as Richmond and Coquitlam have already returned to them.
COPE Councillor Jean Swanson seemed to disagree, following Kirby-Yung in the speaker lineup by saying that she has “a different idea what leadership is,” because cases continue to rise and they should "do everything they can" to keep transmission low. She voted in favour of the amendment.
Green councillor Pete Fry attended digitally and shared that City staff weren't able to install plexiglass between his desk and Adriane Carr's, so they were advised not to attend on the same day. Staff recommended a game of musical chairs where Fry would attend in-person one day, then Carr the next.
What does this mean for the public? Well, you're also allowed to attend IRL now if you'd like to see democracy in action.
It also means that you'll still be able to attend meetings digitally. By signing up to speak on an issue you won't have to take the afternoon off of work and hang out in the chamber with a few politicians, staffers, and members of the media, who are getting paid to do that.
Before the vote was called Mayor Stewart noted that all staff should work within their comfort zones, and called the ability for the public to phone in a “huge innovation” that helps democracy.
Another possible side effect that you may see is better news coverage of city hall, as having reporters in the room not only lets our elected officials know that we're keeping an eye on them, but it also facilitates better conversations between reporters and our leaders, who often make themselves available for comment after meetings.