Saanich is looking to technology as the answer to resuming public hearings.
The District cancelled all public hearings along with most other in-person meetings on March 17 until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, on May 1, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing released a statement allowing local governments to hold public hearings electronically during the pandemic so construction and development may continue.
During an electronic meeting on May 4, Saanich councillors discussed two development permit applications and were given the option to support the applications and waive a public hearing.
At that meeting, municipal staff explained that though Saanich has never done it, the Local Government Act permits waiving a public hearings for a rezoning application as it’s in line with the Official Community Plan. Staff suggested the option could be considered due to the pandemic.
After lengthy discussions about both applications and residents’ concerns, council concluded residents should be given the opportunity to provide input and sent both to a public hearing, Mayor Fred Haynes said.
He added that even if council had waived the public hearing, residents would have been given two weeks to write in and have their opinions considered by council.
The province is allowing individual local governments to determine their own method for public hearings. Residents will also be provided with instructions for participating electronically and councils will continue to accept written submissions.
On May 7, Haynes explained that Saanich is working on a phone-in option for public hearings moving forward. Residents will be able to call-in to public hearings, queue up on the line and have their voices heard. He’s expecting these hearings to draw more attendees as contributing by phone is more inclusive and less time-consuming for residents.
Haynes is “very pleased” to see electronic public hearings be allowed as residents “have a right to be heard but also to hear others at the meetings.” He expects phone-in public hearings to begin in early June and said instructions and other updates will be made available to residents beforehand.
Haynes also noted that council is also looking at “carefully” returning to municipal hall for meetings on May 25 though the facility would remain closed to the public. With council back in the chambers, residents will once again be able to watch live footage of meetings.