Comox council looking at online meeting options for now

Council cancels a committee meeting next week and waits for legal direction from Province

.The Town of Comox held what will probably be its last regular council meeting in public on Wednesday.

As a late item, Coun. Pat McKenna made a motion for the Town to take the lead in social distancing measures responding to the current COVID-19 pandemic by holding meetings out of council chambers and instead use an online format.

“I think it’s really important that we get ahead in social distancing,” he said. “The only way we’re going to flatten this curve is if we all socially isolate.”

Mayor Russ Arnott told council he had taken part in a teleconference on March 17 with roughly 170 other B.C. mayors and the Province about how to hold meetings for council business while still being accountable to the public.

“The Province is working on mechanisms to allow this,” he said, suggesting they get information from the provincial government first before making specific changes. “We are somewhat handcuffed by legal requirements.”

The agenda for the March 18 meeting was not that extensive, with a few major matters, most notably the third reading of bylaws regarding a large development proposed for Aspen Road. At a public hearing only two weeks ago, about 150 people turned out to express support or opposition to the proposal.

RELATED STORY: Developer shocked at pushback during Comox public hearing

For the March 18 regular council meeting, the Town chose to move next door to the hall at the d’Esterre Senior Centre in order to have more space. Though the public hearing was the point in the process for people to voice their opinion, council made accommodations for the public to watch. There was room inside with chairs spaced out but still fall within the 50-person limit, while a speaker and chairs were set up outside should there be overflow or if people chose not to come inside. Prior to the meeting, staff and council also wiped down the area.

In all, fewer than 10 members of the public attended, and some were not happy the meeting was even going ahead in light of a health crisis in which people are being asked to stay home. The meeting was to be recorded and posted to the Town website.

RELATED STORY: Comox council approves third reading of Aspen-Murrelet project

McKenna’s additional agenda item came in response to the changing situation around COVID-19. Some on council, including council members Nicole Minions and Alex Bissinger, who were attending via Internet link, supported the idea to make a change now. Bissinger explained she was currently in “lockdown” mode.

Others followed Arnott’s lead, as the Province is supposed to be bringing legislation to allow local governments some latitude in terms of how they conduct business.

McKenna agreed and the majority of council, including the mover himself, decided to vote down his more all-encompassing motion and pass one that will cancel next week’s committee of the whole meeting for now and have a call-in meeting. Meanwhile, the Town can address provisions for changes once the provincial government provides direction in the coming days about legal requirements for meetings. Comox staff have also been directed to explore streaming options available for the public during online meetings.

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