Council debating electronic participation

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By Chris Marchand

Dryden City Council is taking a look at their own version of the age old question, ‘just because we CAN do something, should we?’.

The discussion forms around the prospect of electronic participation (such as video or telephone conferencing) in council meetings, which will be an option for Ontario municipalities as of Jan. 1.

A staff report in the Nov. 13 Committee of the Whole agenda directed council to discuss some potential amendments to their procedural bylaw that would govern the scope of participation for councillors who took part in meetings electronically.

One proposed amendment provides that those accessing the meeting remotely shall not be counted towards determining quorum (the established minimum number of members to allow a meeting to take place).

A second proposed bylaw would forbid electronic participation within in-camera (closed to the public) meetings.

British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were earlier adopters of allowing the technology into the chambers of local government. While all currently say no to using the technology in-camera, the municipalities sometimes diverge over the question of allowing councillors to vote on matters in open council through a video, or audio call.

With the budget looming and more pressing matters afoot, City Clerk Debra Kincaid anticipates council will take its time mulling an issue that very few regional municipalities have yet to act on. An upcoming city initiative to broadcast meetings over the web may also have some equipment requirements that could work in concert with video calling to explore at the same time.

“I don’t expect council will deal with that question until probably sometime in the first quarter of 2018,” said City Clerk Debra Kincaid. “Conceptually, it’s easy to implement, however there’s a lot of logistical and procedural things that have to be considered. Council would have to determine how many people could call in at a given meeting? What happens if they lose the connection? Do we pause the meeting for up to 5 minutes to re-connect? The other thing is the equipment perspective upstairs (council chambers). We’re going to be web-casting and we need to look at a new sound system anyway.”

Among the many questions to answer are: how many members could participate electronically at the same time? Could they arrive late? How many times per year should this option be exercised? Should members who are not physically present be provided with meeting agenda packages? Should delegations tailor their presentations to accommodate those tuning in remotely?

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