Haliburton County council held a meeting April 22 via online teleconferencing platform Zoom with the meeting broadcast via the county's YouTube channel. Highlands East Mayor Dave Burton and Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall (not pictured) joined by telephone. /CHAD INGRAM Staff

Council talks COVID-19 communications

By Chad Ingram

Haliburton County councillors discussed what kinds of communications should be issued by the upper-tier of the county in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic during an April 22 meeting.

It had been more than a month since county councillors convened after regular meetings were suspended amid the pandemic. Councillors took part in Wednesday’s meeting remotely using the digital teleconferencing platform Zoom with the meeting broadcast on the county’s YouTube channel.

It had been the suggestion of Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt that some kind of joint statement regarding the COVID-19 crisis be issued by the county’s four townships. County council is comprised of the mayors and deputy mayors of each of the four municipalities.

“Given how things are changing every day it’s just hard to say exactly what that statement might be right now” said Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and County Warden Liz Danielsen. “ . . . But I still think it’s a good idea to think about putting forward a message from us all done in way that the public can see us all and hear a consistent message from us.”

The county’s townships have been issuing press releases and other messaging regarding closures cancellations tax deadline extensions and other changes resulting from the coronavirus outbreak. There’s been some criticism in the community that the townships don’t appear to be working together enough.

“The nature of our individual municipalities calls for us to do different things but I think there’s some thinking that we’re not working together and I’d like to dispel that” Danielsen said adding there are ongoing discussions not just between politicians but also township staff.

“I’ve asked twice for the mayors to be able to do something together” said Moffatt. “In this situation we do have individual needs in our communities but we are working together but there are some challenges.”

Moffatt said she’d suggested the concept of a joint statement via online conferencing platform Zoom whereby the public could see and hear the mayors. Like Danielsen Moffatt said the four townships are working more closely together than she believes many residents realize.

“There’s a little bit of silo going on but there’s far less silo going on than the general public believes” Moffatt said. “ . . . There is definitely the perception of a fragmented approach and I think we can do quite easily a good job of fixing that.”

Moffatt also said that when the pandemic is over and things are back to normal or “new normal” she’d like to see a fulsome review of countywide communications during the crisis “and how we can do a different job going forward of big events or incidents should they happen again hopefully they don’t.”

Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts said she thought the county and its lower-tiers were doing a fine job when it came to communications during the crisis.

“I think all the lower-tier townships and the county have been doing an excellent job of communicating out how COVID has affected us in our normal services” Roberts said. “ . . . I also know that our CAOs [chief administrative officers] have been talking on a regular basis to make sure they’re in touch and I actually think we’ve been doing a very good job. I think we have to make sure we don’t overstep our responsibilities and we know what municipal services that we’re responsible for and not wade in on the things that we’re not responsible for.”

Minden Hills Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell said she supported the idea of some kind of joint video statement from the mayors.

“I agree that I think something should go out sooner than later from all of the mayors” Schell said. “I like the idea of a Zoom meeting. I’m getting a lot of feedback from people saying they’re not hearing enough. Again you can put stuff out there but you can’t make people read it correct? But perhaps some kind of video I think maybe people would be more engaged with something like that. I don’t see the harm in it.”

Highlands East Mayor Dave Burton said he was supportive of some kind of joint message but wondered if a Zoom message might end up constituting a formal meeting under the Municipal Act.

“I’m not sure . . . there was some concern that it may constitute a meeting” Burton said.

“If there’s no decisions being made specifically you’re just agreeing on a joint statement I don’t believe that you’ve got an issue like that” Danielsen said.

“I think that’s something that we can work on” Danielsen said of the joint statement concept. “I still think that we need to do a more streamlined communications or we need to have a better communications plan going forward overall when we’re in circumstances like this.”

“So what are we missing?” said Roberts. “What message isn’t getting out there?”

Danielsen said she could think of two examples where there had been a lot of outcry from the public both negative and positive.

“One was specific to the issue of people demanding that we tell people don’t come to the county and I think we could have done a better job of messaging with that” Danielsen said. “I’ve never been prepared to say don’t come to the county personally. Rather I would like to say that people need to think very carefully before they do that and there are certain things they need to think about if they are going to come here.”

Danielsen noted the issue of boat launches and whether or not they are to be closed has also been somewhat convoluted.

“There have been an awful lot of grey areas in some of the orders that have come down [from the province]” she said “and we’re all trying to weed our way through exactly what’s intended.”

Moffatt said that while meetings between staff members emergency operations groups and so forth are ongoing she still felt the mayors needed to communicate more directly with residents.

“We are the faces and the voices of our community” she said. “The community is frightened the community is nervous the community is confused and I think that we need to be out there as a group to say that we are working hard that we support the community.”

“It’s just letting people know that we are aligned we are informed we are paying attention and that we care we are knowledgeable and that we’re providing leadership to the community” Moffatt said. “I think that’s what people are looking for from all of us as a front.”

Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin said he agreed with the video concept and would be happy to see that go forward.

Danielsen suggested a draft of a statement be sent to council members and that the logistics of the execution could be figured out after that.