Highlands East council meets virtually
By Sue Tiffin
The following are brief reports of items discussed during an April 21 special meeting of Highlands East council.
Almost 20 viewers watched a live-streamed meeting of council on April 21, as Highlands East councillors met virtually by phone, broadcasting the online meeting on YouTube.
“Because the municipal office and all facilities are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this special meeting of council will be taking place virtually with councillors and staff using videoconferencing software,” reads the municipality’s website.
Mayor Dave Burton thanked municipal staff and the IT department for setting up the possibility of a virtual meeting.
“Most of the technology and training transpired through the county IT department,” Burton told the Echo. “IT met with the clerks and then held meetings with some staff to provide training. Staff provided the necessary information to council. It was a team effort.”
While county council, which also met last week, opted for a video discussion in which councillors broadcast both video of themselves alongside audio to participate, the meeting in Highlands East was conducted using Zoom through a conference call on phone, with a visual of the meeting agenda and related reports.
“Internet connection was the main reason for the phone-in meeting,” said Burton. “Not everyone has high speed in our area.” Burton also thanked councillors, who each took part remotely in the meeting, which lasted just more than half an hour.
“I feel it went excellent,” Burton later told the Echo. “There were a few glitches, but under the circumstances, it went well. Stating this, we will be glad when we all can meet together.”
A future meeting has not yet been scheduled.
Bylaw amendment allows for emergency meeting measures
Council approved an amendment to the municipal procedural bylaw under Bill 187, the Municipal Emergency Measures Act 2020, which was passed by the province in an emergency sitting on March 19 amending the Municipal Act, 2001, to allow for members of council, local boards and committees to participate electronically in open and closed meetings, and be counted toward quorum during emergencies. Council also approved the ability to form an emergency governance committee to allow for governance continuity if three members are not able to participate in a meeting for valid reasons.
“This committee would only be effective for the duration of an emergency and appointed by seniority,” reads a report by clerk Robyn Rogers.
Municipal staff working through pandemic
A state of emergency was declared in Highlands East on March 19, two days after a state of emergency was declared by the province. Shannon Hunter, Highlands East CAO/treasurer told council “the municipality has had to plan, create and implement policies and procedures to adjust to an evolving landscape in order to provide essential services in a safe manner for everyone,” which has included the closure of recreation facilities and non-essential businesses, maintaining safe distancing protocols and a provincial fire ban.
“In addition to these changes, the municipality has had to make difficult decisions to assist residents and to keep our community safe such as deferring penalties on taxes, not opening the information centre and cancelling programs,” said Hunter.
“Even though facilities are closed to the public, operations have continued,” she said. “Disinfecting, business continuity and working from home protocols have been implemented for all departments. Staff continue to be creative in order to achieve work expectations.“
According to Hunter, the municipality’s administration staff have been working as part of the emergency management operations centre providing a COVID-19 pandemic response that includes meeting preparation, drafting policies, updates to social media and media releases and undergoing training to hold virtual council meetings. Payroll functions, final grant reporting submissions, and work toward a year-end audit as well as additional duties and other daily admin and finance jobs has continued.
The municipality’s bylaw enforcement officers are able to enforce orders under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, but so far calls to the department have been minimal. Staff have mailed letters to campground and trailer park owners, noting they are to remain closed at this time.
Weekly training is cancelled for the fire department, with the fire chief’s focus on procedures for dealing with the COVID-19 virus and securing proper personal protective equipment.
“There is some discussion regarding online training should this continue for the long term,” said Hunter’s report. “However we have not moved forward with anything yet. The fire chief feels it is still too early to commit to additional ways of training at this point.”
The roads department was self-isolated for 14 days “due to potential COVID-19 exposure,” and upon returning to work has been continuing operations, including removing snowplow equipment, and planning for sweeping.
“While we have had an easy spring, we have had a half dozen culverts wash out due to frost heaving them out of the road,” reads Hunter’s report.