Highlands East welcomes hybrid meetings

By Darren Lum
In-person meetings return, but virtual option will continue for meetings
The Municipality of Highlands East is providing an electronic option for people interested in attending council meetings wherever they may be.
With an amendment to the procedural bylaw and the adoption of Bill 197, all meetings will be in the “hybrid” format, which means meetings will be conducted in-person and with the virtual option, which is broadcasted through by Zoom and available to view on YouTube during the pandemic.

With Bill 187 being introduced at the start of the pandemic, virtual attendance was accepted and considered quorum – the minimum number of members of an assembly or society that must be present at any of its meetings to make the proceedings of that meeting valid.
The evolution of Bill 187 is Bill 197, which was approved by Royal Assent on July 21 2020.
“That’s taking it a bit further. That if you have it in your procedural bylaw that you can continue on with electronic participation and [with] the live-streaming, of course. [This was adopted by] a lot of municipalities … [It’s important so we] have that transparency and accountability aspect there,” Highlands East clerk Robyn Rogers said.

Rogers said the hybrid model not only provides seasonal residents a method to attend meetings, but it also ensures access to residents with long-term illnesses, or who have mobility issues, or who are on parental leave, which was approved for council members.
“And I think as we look at it, it’s just a progression. It’s being proactive. You know, we’ve provided this to our public, are residents for the last two years. And I don’t think we can revert [to before the pandemic]. I guess what I’m saying because people come and they’ve relied on this now, to be able to click a button to see our council meetings and take part at a distance as well,” she said.
The way the township will implement is expected to model what is happening elsewhere, so expect it to go “slow and steady,” Rogers said.

This policy will apply to everyone, which includes council members, staff and the public.
Electronic attendance must be declared at least 24 hours before and cannot be decided on a whim by councillors. Delegations will still need to pre-register to present to council.
The in-person attendance is at the discretion of the mayor, clerk and the CEO, Rogers points out.
“We’re going to be looking at each specific circumstance that comes up with respect to how the participation is going to work,” she said. “The main goal here is to have quorum for the meeting, and to allow whoever that wants to participate in the meeting to be able to participate, whether it’s in-person or currently electronic.”

CEO Shannon Hunter said there is a challenge with the current council chambers as far as adherence to pandemic measures to reduce transmission of COVID-19.
“We’re now between a rock and a hard spot because we’ve been requested that anyone that [is] indoors and you can’t keep a six foot distance to mask up. So, with our setup, we’re proceeding to setup that meeting in-person, but while we’re in the sixth wave when we’re sitting at council table, if we’re all there, we cannot keep our six-feet separation from one another. So we would have to wear masks,” Hunter said.
Mayor Dave Burton asked if there could be a six month trial for this hybrid model and Rogers said, yes, because it is “an evolving policy” and that changes could be needed.

Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall said this option will be great for staff, who are not able to attend the in-person for work or are out of the municipality.
“Allowing them that option is the right thing to do,” he said.
Council is preparing to have an in-person meeting in May, but with just council members, CEO and the clerk while everyone else will attend electronically.