Streaming council meetings broadens access
By Sue Tiffin
In a photo she posted online, Minden Hills Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell shows how she attended a county council meeting participating in a way she hasn’t before: feet up on a reclining chair in her living room with her dog Gucci curled up beside her.
Schell has been attending virtual meetings since the middle of March, when physical distancing practices came into effect in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the April 22 meeting of county council was the first public council meeting Schell took part in that was broadcast online to the general public.
Next week for a closed council session, Schell plans to move to her bedroom and shut the door.
The county council meeting was the second council meeting in the county – Highlands East broadcast a teleconference online on April 21 – to take place with councillors participating remotely using the digital teleconferencing platform Zoom, broadcasting to municipal YouTube channels. Bill 187, the Municipal Emergency Measures Act 2020 permits an electronic meeting in a declared emergency, which the province announced on March 19.
It’s a new way of working for council members and municipal staff, as they adapt to continue working from home or while respecting physical distancing measures recommended by public health agencies.
“Holding virtual council meetings has been a new experience for all of us in the county,” said County Warden and Deputy Mayor of Algonquin Highlands Liz Danielsen. “But during a state of emergency, it has proved to be a saving grace, as it allows us to conduct business almost, and I stress almost, as usual. Having said that, nothing during this crisis has been business as usual. However, the virtual meeting experience was a good one, and proceeded without incident.”
Municipal clerks and county staff have worked – and continue to do so – to develop a plan to move council meetings online, according to Mike March, the County of Haliburton’s director of IT. Each of the municipalities are using the same conferencing technology, and underwent training to use it correctly prior to meetings being held. March, as well as county CAO Mike Rutter and some of the councillors who took part in last week’s first online meetings, noted apprehension regarding broadcasting live, which can pose challenges due to technology, distractions in the home environment as well as the differences in communicating in-person compared to onscreen.
“While there are plenty of well-tested options for conducting online meetings, the group had to ensure that our council meeting processes could be adapted to work in this new virtual reality,” said March.
“Simple things like asking questions, voting, and ensuring quorum, become more complex when we have some councillors attending by video and others by phone. Fortunately, municipalities all across Ontario have been very forthcoming and helpful when sharing their online experiences so we have been able to learn what works and what does not before we conducted our first council meeting. Best practices guides for conducting virtual meetings (such as making sure you are located away from barking dogs and boisterous children) were shared with us by other municipalities, which was very helpful when trying to plan for the best public viewing and listening experience that we could achieve.”
Licensing required to host council meetings through Zoom costs less than $100 per month, according to March. Cameras and microphones built into laptops and mobile devices have resulted in low expenditure for equipment while being able to stream meetings to YouTube has resulted in no additional costs to make the meetings widely available, and for a short time after the meeting is held.
“Each municipality will be making the decision independently as to whether or not to keep the streams accessible after the meeting ends,” said March, noting that both last week’s county council meeting and Highlands East council meeting were removed after being made available for about 24 hours after the live broadcast.
“The county’s IT department has been a godsend to both the county, and its member municipalities during this pandemic, setting up all of the municipalities in a way that allows many employees to work from home,” said Danielsen. “In addition, the techs have spent hours investigating the best online programs to use for virtual meetings and has offered training on best practices.”
Residents – some who had never attended an in-person meeting before – offered positive feedback about the experience to councillors.
“I was pretty excited to be able to hear some of the items being discussed, and how they agree,” said Minden Hills resident Sharon Foster. “I think all meetings should be streamed in the interest of communication.”
“The interesting thing is that more folks tuned in to watch the meeting online than we ever actually have in the audience, which was a good sign,” said Danielsen. “It is also something that we will have to consider as we go forward and resume regular meetings. Do we invest in the proper programs and equipment to offer this on a permanent basis or do we return to standard meetings. In efforts of openness and transparency this is something that will require serious consideration, despite those who might be a bit camera shy. We still have to consider meetings where contentious issues are being discussed and a large number of folks are in attendance to stand in support or opposition of the matter under consideration. If we decide to continue with a streamed version it will allow folks to attend without having to drive any distance, or even leave the comfort of their couch.”
Information regarding future online council meetings can be obtained at http://www.haliburton.civicweb.net or through individual websites of each of the municipalities.