City council entering 'uncharted territory' with remote meetings

For the first time ever, Ottawa city councillors will be allowed to participate and vote in a council meeting remotely on Wednesday as city hall tries to work within the confines of new social distancing measures needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the provincial government banned gatherings of more than 50 people — an issue for council meeting, as they  almost always draw at least that many, between council members, city staff, the media and the public — but also passed legislation that would allow council members to participate remotely. Quorum remains 13, but they won't all have to be in the council chamber.

Councillors who decide to participate in person will have to keep at least one empty seat between them, and have been asked to inform the clerk's office by noon Tuesday if they plan to do so.

Only minimal senior and supporting staff will present in the chamber to brief council on agenda items. If other staff members are needed to answer questions, they'll be on standby and can be called upon if necessary.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press

The media and the public will not be allowed to attend. As usual, the meeting will be steamed online through the city's YouTube channel and broadcast live by Rogers TV. All non-essential city hall meetings and items have been put off, including a cancelled transit commission meeting that was scheduled for last Wednesday.

"It's really uncharted waters," said Mayor Jim Watson. "We have a couple of timely pieces of business that have to be taken care of and then we'll try to get out of the meeting as quickly as possible."

Hefty agenda

That could be a challenge, given Wednesday's weighty agenda.

Ottawa's medical officer of health, Vera Etches, will give an update on the COVID-19 situation in the city, and council will have to hash out what the criteria will be for the property tax and water "hardship deferral program," which will give people until late October to pay their bills.

Then there's the matter of declaring the seat for Cumberland ward empty, after the former councillor for the area, Stephen Blais, was recently elected MPP for Orléans.

Patrick Louiseize

Before the pandemic, it was expected that there would be a byelection held in the eastern Ottawa ward by June. But the current need for social distancing makes holding any sort of election — with the door-to-door canvassing, town halls and all-candidates debates that elections usually entail — impractical.

Council will likely have to appoint someone to represent the ward, which could be other area councillors or even someone outside council altogether, a contingency that the Municipal Act allows for, but is rarely used.

Confidential info by courier

One issue that could prove tricky is the handling of in-camera issues. On Wednesday, council must set the parameters for the city's collective bargaining negotiations with ATU 279 — the union that covers OC Transpo operators and other workers. The contract expires at the end of the month.

Andrew Lee/CBC

Discussions around labour negotiations are conducted in camera, or "in the room" behind closed doors. During a normal meeting, when council decides to go in camera, everyone other than elected officials and essential staff have to pack up their belongings and leave. Black drapes are pulled shut so outsiders can't even look into the council chambers.

This time around, councillors not in the room won't be able to watch any presentation given by city staff, so the clerk's office is sending a confidential report and PowerPoint presentation by courier to each council member's home.