Group calls for transparency at Kingston council's 'secretive' Zoom meetings

·3 min read

An advocacy group in Kingston, Ont., is calling for more transparency during virtual city council meetings, citing "secretive" attendance and concerns over councillors texting each other.

In a letter addressed to the mayor and council, the Coalition of Kingston Communities, which represents 21 local organizations, raised those issues and suggested improvements to council's pandemic-era Zoom meetings.

"No one watching knows how many people [there] are, and who is anticipated in a committee meeting by watching the live stream, making the online meetings feel secretive," the letter reads.

It's fair to ask them to turn on cameras. - Christine Sypnowich, Coalition of Kingston Communities

Councillors are on camera but people don't see other attendees, explained Christine Sypnowich, a Queen's University professor and chair of the coalition.

"Democracy isn't just about the people we elected. It's we the electorate," she said. She suggested a sign-in process for public attendees tuning into the meeting as "a nice step forward."

Kristen Ritchie
Kristen Ritchie

Sypnowich said viewers should also be able to see the faces of the delegation addressing council.

"It's fair to ask them to turn on cameras," she said, acknowledging that some people don't have the technology or may not wish to turn cameras on for personal reasons.

The letter also states the "use of Zoom exacerbates long-standing concerns that councillors are texting with each other during meetings" rather than giving their full attention to the matter at hand.

Technology, privacy concerns

Coun. Wayne Hill said delegations that address council are often seniors who may have a hard time with the technology, and said some people might be uncomfortable with the public "peering right into their homes."

But Hill said if people want to appear on camera, he welcomes that.

Kingston City Council/Youtube
Kingston City Council/Youtube

Coun. Bridget Doherty said asking delegations to turn on cameras when possible is a "good point."

"As much as possible delegations should be seen as well as heard," she wrote in an email.

Texting harmless, councillors say

"I will admit I have texted a colleague during a meeting whether in-person or via Zoom," Coun. Mary Rita Holland said in an email, noting that councillors' emails and texts can be made public through a Freedom of Information request to the city.

Gone is the opportunity to grab a coffee before council, a beer after council. - Coun. Robert Kiley

She said texting is useful when she missed something that was said, or when asking for more context.

"Councillors are texting during meetings. And I'm fine with that as long as it's within the rules," said Coun. Robert Kiley in an email.

"Why? Because it's the only subtle, non-formal interaction we can have with one another in the pandemic," he said. "Gone is the opportunity to grab a coffee before council, a beer after council, or a water cooler chat during council."

Virtual meetings 'could be better' option: mayor

Mayor Bryan Paterson said the virtual meetings may turn out to be a blessing because before the pandemic, many residents were disinclined to trek down to city hall to appear before council.

"That can be intimating for some people. Maybe in some ways this could be better," he suggested.

Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press
Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press

Paterson said asking delegations to show their faces is a good idea when technology allows, but said the city never had sign-in sheets for public attendees at in-person city council meetings.

He also pointed out there's no rule against texting.

"We don't have anything in our procedural bylaw that prohibits communication [in] a meeting."

"It's a balance," Paterson said. "I would be hesitant to put something into law that would be unrealistic or impractical."