Saanich council will continue to hold public-free meetings until the end of April due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but staff have been directed to look at options for resuming open forums virtually.
Council unanimously agreed to continue conducting meetings without the public present which is permitted under a ministerial order that stipulates municipalities must provide other means of public engagement and, at the time, Saanich allowed the public to participate by phone and watch meetings via livestream.
Council adopted the order in June, renewed it in November and on Jan. 25 renewed it a second time – putting the format in place until April 30.
Coun. Susan Brice, who made the motion, said while council has heard that residents miss being able to address councillors in person, it’s “not where we are from a public health point of view and these regulations have to be extended.”
In a subsequent motion, Coun. Colin Plant asked council to direct staff to look at the possibility of bringing back open forums – which were suspended due to the pandemic in March 2020 – with virtual adaptations to increase opportunities for public input safely.
“I think it is something that has been noticeably absent,” he said, adding that with the current technology, residents could choose to phone in and share their concerns, present a video or just continue to write in.
That motion passed 5-4 with Couns. Karen Harper and Zac de Vries, Brice and Mayor Fred Haynes opposed.
The following morning, on behalf of council, Haynes wrote to the various community associations and the Saanich Community Association Network to explain and thanked them for their patience and for “remaining engaged” despite the challenges. In 2020, residents submitted nearly 6,200 pieces of written correspondence compared to just over 4,200 in 2019, and the phone-in option for public input has been utilized, Haynes said.
He added that while it’s clear the public has not stopped engaging, the district is working to upgrade its technology with the goal of permitting the public to participate in meetings by video.