November 24th - Alberta entered a second state of public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The targeted restrictions implemented by the provincial government means new rules for social gatherings, worship services, businesses, and schools. Local town, village, and county councils are once again facing decisions on how to adapt their meetings to reduce transmission while balancing the need to be open and transparent to the public who should be able to attend. Technically it is not against restrictions for a council to meet in person, but there has been an ask from the province that everyone do their part to reduce possible contacts. Ten municipalities in the area have responded to questions regarding how their council meetings will proceed during this unique time, and various approaches are being implemented by the different councils.
Village Councils of Glenwood and Hillspring do not have the capacity to change meetings over to virtual sessions easily and instead have decided to simply restrict the number of attendees to be in accordance with Alberta Health Services guidelines. There are a maximum of ten individuals allowed to be present, most of those seats being taken by council and administration with only a few spots left for interested residents. Masks are required when coming and going but can be taken off once situated six feet away from others in the room. The meetings in these municipalities have been moved from council chambers into the community centres to accommodate physical distancing guidelines. Hillspring and Glenwood council meetings, like most municipalities, do not typically have a large turnout so their respective administrations believe that there will not be a big issue having to turn people away who would like to attend.
The towns of Cardston, Magrath, and Fort Macleod have also opted to continue in person meetings using the same mask and physical distancing tools as the villages, but are attempting to improve virtual access through technology. Fort Macleod and Magrath are still looking into their options for virtual meetings and improving their procedure bylaw to allow for them, whereas Cardston already has been recording and posting videos to YouTube a few days later. Cardston councillors are given the option to attend virtually and some have already taken this option in order to limit their exposure. Cardston, Magrath, and Fort Macleod also do not tend to have large attendance at regular council and committee meetings, so these measures of social distancing and masks should not be an issue unless there is an abnormal amount of residents wishing to attend.
Stirling, Cardston County, and Raymond are relying more heavily on virtual meetings. Stirling began doing zoom meetings back when the first shutdown happened in the Spring and slowly transitioned back to in person meetings with physical distancing measures in place. Councillors have at times opted to access meetings virtually and the village of Stirling is open to allowing remote access to residents who request this due to the pandemic. Cardston County is meeting in person, but because of the dimensions of their room residents who show up to attend live will be able to access the meeting via zoom in a different room in the building that allows for proper social distancing. Raymond has completely restricted public access to their meetings. While the councillors are attending in person, residents may only access through live streaming. Over the last few months some committee meetings had still allowed for public access but that has been tightened up due to the latest restrictions announced by the province.
Pincher Creek and Coalhurst have both gone completely virtual with their meetings. Coalhurst uses the Star Leaf platform and citizens can dial in by phone to access the meeting while councillors and delegates are able to view in real time. Pincher Creek Council has opted to use the GoToMeeting platform which allows them to have a dedicated url that residents can use to access meetings, including budget deliberations and Committees of the Whole. At first Pincher Creek was using a mixed system where some residents could access in person, but once those spots were filled in chambers everyone else had to access remotely. Economic Development officer Marie Everts noticed that the mixed meetings were harder to navigate than moving things completely in person or online. Pincher Creek began to move meetings online when COVID first hit in the spring and made sure each councillor was set up with a laptop, headphones, and training if needed. Everts says “It’s amazing how quickly people can adapt” referencing councillors who had a steep learning curve in the beginning. And isn’t adaptation one of the biggest themes of these unprecedented times?
Elizabeth Thompson-Christensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Temple City Star