Neither the public nor media has had access to District of Vanderhoof ‘open’ council meetings since B.C. first declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 in March.
During this time, the district discussed and passed bylaws involving Vanderhoof’s five-year financial plan, tax rates, record management and others, without providing a platform for the public to see or hear the discussions that led to their decisions.
Under normal circumstances, the provincial community charter stipulates that council cannot vote on bylaws in a closed meeting. There are a number of exceptions, including discussions pertaining to contracts, personnel matters and others.
An inability to observe social distancing in council chambers with public attendance has been offered as the reason for the closed meetings.
The municipal office did not provide teleconferencing or online platforms where their meetings could be under public scrutiny, as other local councils in this and other regions around B.C. have done over recent months.
Mayor Gerry Thiessen and town CAO Lori Egli cited Ministerial Order M083 issued by the ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing on March 26, as the reason for not providing public access to council meetings. That order stated that even though councils could disallow public attendance at open meetings under the pandemic circumstances, those meetings would not be considered ‘closed.’
However, the ministerial order referenced by Thiessen and Egli was actually rescinded and replaced by a new order on May 1, along with a news release which said that public input is an essential part of decision-making.
“As public input is an essential part of land-use decision-making, even for those decisions that do not require a public hearing, local governments are still expected to find ways to encourage public participation,” stated the release.
Communities across B.C., including Fort St. James, Fraser Lake, Burns Lake and Prince George made their public meetings accessible online during the virus pandemic, either via video conferencing or dial-in.
The Express contacted neighbouring municipalities to establish how much it cost them to move their meetings online. Officials said setting up their meetings online was cost-free, as municipal councillors already have access to iPads or other technology on which free video-conferencing software can be installed.
Members of the public are then given an access code to observe virtual meetings of council.
The City of Prince George has streamed webcasts for the past 12 years, so when the pandemic hit it had little impact on council meeting access, as the public could go online to observe live discussions of mayor and council.
Responding to Express questions in an emailed statement on June 9, Mayor Thiessen said, “We are trying to accommodate, but we have so many projects on the go that have a very tight time frame. We know that we will need to find other options but that may take a few weeks.”
Thiessen did not respond when asked what those options were and why it would take a few more weeks to provide public or media access to open council meetings.
On June 12, Marielle Tounsi, public affairs officer for the ministry of municipal affairs and housing said, the May ministerial order replacing the earlier directive was written to allow local governments to hold council and board meetings using electronic methods.
“Local governments continue to be required to follow procedural and transparency rules and are encouraged to provide online streaming of council and council committee meetings that include opportunities for “real-time” question and answers to encourage communication and support public engagement,” she said.