Municipal councils grapple with ways to be transparent during COVID-19

It's unclear what democracy will look like at the municipal level while Nova Scotia is under a state of emergency, but it will be different.

With social distancing rules thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, councils are grappling with ways to hold online meetings while being open and transparent with the public.

The regional municipalities in Cape Breton and Halifax plan to hold virtual council meetings next week, but neither has figured out yet how that will work.

On Tuesday, Mayor Cecil Clarke said the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) is still working on making services available to the public while taking care of staff.

"We literally are still in tactical operational response and dealing day by day with just ongoing operations," he said.

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CBRM is testing different software packages to find one that will allow councillors to vote on motions and provide a record of the meeting, Clarke said.

It's also unclear whether people will be able to watch online as council meetings happen, Clarke said.

To begin with, CBRM council meetings will only deal with budgetary or other "immediate and pressing" matters, he said.

"At this point we're still trying to get a handle on what are the decisions we're going to be looking for council to make that are essential decisions," he said. "All non-essential decisions are still being put off at this time."

According to a directive from Nova Scotia Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter, councils must record online meetings and post minutes publicly within 24 hours.

However, some municipalities may not have the technical means or resources to allow the public to watch virtual council meetings as they happen.

'People's lives are being dramatically and drastically affected'

Cara Zwibel, a director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in Toronto, said even in a state of emergency, democracy needs to be safeguarded.

"I think everyone is in a position where they're trying to do the best they can, but I think when it comes to democratic decision making and accountability, now is the time we really do need officials to be taking those additional and extraordinary steps to try to make their decision making more transparent," she said.

"People's lives are being dramatically and drastically affected by decisions that are being made in these council chambers and parliamentary meetings and legislative assembly meetings and so it's really important that people have access to that."

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Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said council is planning to hold a virtual meeting next week and efforts will be made to find software that allows the public to watch live.

"However we do the meeting, we are going to try to be as open and transparent as we can possibly be," he said.

Pam Mood, mayor of the Town of Yarmouth and president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, said elected officials are doing their best in trying times.

"Everything is different," she said. "We are under a state of emergency right now, so I'm hoping and I believe our public understands that just as well as we do, that their elected leaders are going to do everything in their power to make sure things are as transparent as possible."

Mood said municipalities will find their own way of holding virtual meetings, depending on council chamber size, phone lines, internet access and resources.

The key will be to provide good communications afterwards around decisions, she said.