A South Shore mayor is pushing the province to reinstate in-person municipal council meetings.
Towns and municipalities across Nova Scotia have been forced to hold meetings online since Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter ordered all council chambers shuttered on March 22 due to COVID-19 concerns.
The Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities gathers mayors and wardens from across the province on a conference call each week.
Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell says he’s raised the issue of in-person council meetings with the minister’s deputy continuously on those calls over the last six weeks.
Mitchell agrees having the ability to continue council meetings virtually during the pandemic has allowed the public to interact with the process of governance.
He says it’s better than nothing, but the virtual experience is not the same.
“It detracts from what should be a more robust discussion and debate," Mitchell said. "People are talking over each other. Technology does have its limitations in terms of emotion and reading body language.”
Region of Queens Mayor David Dagley says virtual meetings make it easier on councillors as they don’t have to travel to council chambers to attend sessions.
But, more importantly, Dagley says council still serves the interests of the community and provides the opportunity for citizens to be engaged.
“I listen to those that speak at council meetings," he said. "They’re the same individuals on council that would speak if we were in council chambers. And for the most part, people that listen in on our Zoom council meetings, and comment, are mostly the same people.”
Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood is president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities and says she doesn’t feel strongly one way or another about in-person council meetings.
However, Mood says each municipality should be allowed to decide for themselves if they wish to hold in-person meetings.
“For those municipal units that have the ability to meet in-person, in keeping with all of the provincial protocols that the premier and Dr. Strang have rightfully put forward, but if a municipal unit can do that, then they should have the choice,” she said.
The Minister of Municipal Affairs Chuck Porter says he has heard the requests to return to in-person council meetings and his staff is looking into that possibility.
“Council chambers are all a little different. We know there are some areas where it could work probably, quite well based on the size of the chamber," he said. "We’re just working our way through that. I would say we are moving in the right direction and hopefully it won’t be too much longer before I have more to say on that.”
It is only because of the minister’s March 22 order that councils can meet virtually in the first place.
The legislation, which lays out the rules for local government, called the Municipal Governance Act, says municipal councils must meet in person.
Mitchell says ideally, he would like to see a hybrid model going forward that would allow virtual and in-person participation of municipal meetings.
“We’re going to have a while where people are not comfortable meeting in person because of the pandemic," he said. "But beyond that, we want younger people running for council. They might have young families. They might have childcare issues or they might be caring for a loved one or sick themselves and not be able to attend every single meeting. Giving them the ability to do that virtually and still be part of the discussion is important.”
The municipal affairs minister says he’s wide open to looking into the hybrid virtual/in-person model.
“One of the things that we have learned is we can quite easily manage, once we get set up, to have a virtual meeting whether it be Zoom or Teams or whatever medium you use, you can manage that with the technology we have today,” Porter said.
Porter says government is always looking for ways to improve how they do business.
Until the municipal affairs department comes up with a plan to allow council chambers to re-open, regional councils will continue to meet virtually.
Dagley says they’re happy to proceed with whatever course of action they’re told to follow.
“I think that the important issue is that we continue to conduct business, we do it in a way that is safe for our councillors and the public and that we deal with the issues that are required to be dealt with," he said. "We’re actually finding that we can do that business either virtually or in council meeting and we will follow whatever the MGA and the minister describes that we have to do.”