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Vancouver mayor to run council meetings from his apartment

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart will begin to conduct council meetings from his downtown apartment April 14
Mayor Kennedy Stewart, pictured here during a council meeting last month, will now conduct meetings from his downtown apartment. File photo Dan Toulgoet
In another first in these unprecedented times, Mayor Kennedy Stewart now has the electronic means set up in his downtown apartment to conduct this month’s city council meetings and public hearings.

Stewart said he tested out the audio gear and technology Monday and it will be in place for council’s next scheduled meeting April 14 and for four others planned this month.

“All the stuff that I have at the helm at city hall, I can now reproduce it virtually at home,” the mayor said by telephone Monday.

“We did our first test run today, and it worked great.”

During the pandemic, Stewart has conducted the last three council meetings from a nearly vacant council chamber at city hall.

Only he, the acting-city clerk and a meeting coordinator were present, which was done to comply with physical distancing measures and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

City councillors dialled in to those meetings, as did senior staff such as city manager Sadhu Johnston and Fire Chief Darrell Reid, who is also in charge of the city’s COVID-19 task force.

Stewart’s home setup will allow him to put councillors in a queue to speak, operate the voting page and patch in senior staff for verbal presentations.

The livestream for meetings will continue, with presentation material and the voting page displayed on the computer screen of the viewer.

“There has to be one or two clerks at city hall to troubleshoot and put up presentations, but that might change, as well,” the mayor said.

“We’re just doing this one step at a time.”

What will be council’s ultimate test of the democratic process during these extraordinary times is public participation in meetings and at public hearings.

The Vancouver Charter states city hall must have a physical space available for speakers to council and for those who want to attend a meeting.

Of the three meetings held during the pandemic, only one person — Heather Redfern of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre — attended city hall to speak to council.

The threat of COVID-19 has the mayor and the city’s acting-city clerk, Rosemary Hagiwara, strongly urging citizens to connect through email and the city’s website, as many have done prior to the pandemic.

The provincial government is considering temporarily excluding the physical space provision in the Charter to avoid people showing up at city hall.

In the meantime, the city is working on a plan to set up a phone system where citizens wanting to speak at city hall can call a number and speak directly to politicians.

“We’re still in the early stages of testing that, but we’re hoping that would work for the public,” said Hagiwara, noting an example of such a system would be the one reporters access when dialing in to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s daily news conferences.

The way that works is a reporter calls a specific number, supplies a meeting code and presses a number on the phone’s keypad to get put in the queue for questions.

A coordinator then announces a reporter’s name and enables the audio system so Henry or Health Minister Adrian Dix can hear and respond to the question.

A citizen could do the same in speaking to council, said Hagiwara, noting platforms such as Skype or Zoom face-to-face video-conferencing was ruled out because it can’t be assumed all citizens have access to the technology.

NPA Coun. Lisa Dominato, who dialled in from home to council’s last three meetings, said she is comfortable with the changes, which she believes are necessary to keep all citizens safe.

“We’ve been hearing largely from members of the public about ensuring a process that really has integrity, where the public has input and has a voice,” said Dominato by telephone Monday.

“That’s really important to us, but it’s a learning process because we’ve never been through this before.”

Dominato said the dial-in council meetings have required some adapting but she noted her previous work with the Ministry of Education required regular tele-conferencing.

She noted council’s last meeting had some technological issues where calls were dropped, along with some feedback from the system and echoing of councillors’ voices, but she trusts those bugs will be worked out.

The bigger philosophical question of what such a move does to democracy is one Dominato answered by saying council has to “tread thoughtfully” during the pandemic.

“I’ve heard public concern and fear that we’re simply going to have meetings and forge ahead and move forward without any public engagement,” she said.

“We have to ensure people have adequate notice and know how they can participate.”

Along with the April 14 council meeting, there is another scheduled for April 28. Public hearings are scheduled for April 28 and April 30.

None of the agendas has been posted to the city’s website.

The mayor, meanwhile, who typically wears a suit at city hall, confirmed he will not be conducting the meetings from his apartment in his pajamas, or sweatpants.

“Maybe my jeans, though,” he said.

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