Yesterday (just after we drafted our blog post on meetings during COVID) the Province passed Bill 187 to allow electronic participation in council, board and committee meetings.
The Bill amends section 238 of the Municipal Act to add the following:
(3.3) The applicable procedure by-law may provide that, during any period where an emergency has been declared to exist in all or part of the municipality under section 4 or 7.0.1 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act,
(a) despite subsection (3.1), a member of a council, of a local board or of a committee of either of them who is participating electronically in a meeting may be counted in determining whether or not a quorum of members is present at any point in time; and
(b) despite subsection (3.2), a member of a council, of a local board or of a committee of either of them can participate electronically in a meeting that is closed to the public.
Same, procedure by-law
(3.4) A municipality or local board may hold a special meeting to amend an applicable procedure by-law for the purposes of subsection (3.3) during any period where an emergency has been declared to exist in all or part of the municipality under section 4 or 7.0.1 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act and despite subsection (3.1), a member participating electronically in such a special meeting may be counted in determining whether or not a quorum of members is present at any time during the meeting.
What this means is that municipalities can now call a meeting electronically to amend the procedural by-law to allow completely electronic meetings of Council – closed or open (since the Province has declared an emergency this authorizes the powers set out above. All members of council may participate electronically and their participation will count for purposes of quorum.
What has not been amended is the obligation to have meetings that are open to the public. Therefore, the public are still entitled to notice of meetings and are entitled to be present at the meeting. Given that all of council may attend virtually, it is a reasonable inference that the public may attend virtually as well without offending the open meeting provisions. After all, the Province cannot be intending to protect council members, but simultaneously saying that members of the public should gather in council chambers to listen to a conference call or Skype meeting.
We recommend that as part of the procedural by-law amendments that council provide direction as to how it will allow the public to be aware of the full contents of the virtual meeting. This is a question for your municipality’s technology staff – it could be making a recording of the telephone conference of the council meeting available on the web site or live streaming the Skype or other video conference of the meeting. It is also reasonable to set up a conference call number that is available to the public so that they can listen in live – there will need to be procedural rules in place to ensure councillors identify themselves and that do not allow the public to interrupt (perhaps the public must put their phones on mute during the meeting).
The technical challenges will need to be dealt with, but this is a positive step forward in allowing the business of municipal government to continue.