RM of Dufferin votes to stop public access to Zoom

At the November 10th meeting, the topic was not on the agenda. Council discussed it in a closed session before newly acclaimed Reeve Brian Weisbrod announced that Council did not feel it was necessary and as there were no covid restrictions. On Tuesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Fluwatch said Canada had entered a flu epidemic.

There was no public discussion before Councilor Bob Bennet made the motion, and the Reeve called the vote.

The motion read, “Public access to the council meetings by way of zoom will be discontinued.” Councillor Sheila Fishley was not in the room when Councillors Wes Hofer, Ashton Riche and Bob Bennett (Bennett was appearing over Zoom) voted on the motion that would see the public no longer having access to RM meetings over Zoom. However, Councilors would continue to have access. Councillor Fishely returned to the room shortly after the vote occurred.

Keith Comstock is an Executive-in-Residence at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. He is a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Government Relations. He noted that the RM appears to be acting under the Authority granted to them under the Municipalities Act regarding Zoom. The Municipalities Act only require council and committee meetings to conduct their meetings in public. And under certain circumstances, at least allow people to listen to the meeting over electronic means. The Act also doesn’t require electronic access if the meeting is held under “normal” circumstances, nor does it require that if a council member is attending electronically, the public also has the option to attend electronically.

“This is not to say that it wouldn't be a good practice to provide electronic access across the board to all council meetings - simply that the Act doesn't currently require it. From my perspective, councils should certainly do everything they are required to do by the Act, but going further to (in this case) provide for electronic access to all meetings, in the same way that many cities do, would aid in transparency and act as a further accountability mechanism to the public. The sticking point of course would be (as it appears to be in this case) that the cost and perhaps the technical requirements might cause some councils to decide to do the minimum only. When we do governance training for councils, we encourage as much communication and transparency as possible - it is a best practice and acknowledges the importance of being accessible to the public,” said Comstock.

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Tammy Knuttila said there was no formal consultation process with ratepayers regarding Zoom. “Anything that council brings to the table, you would assume that they have spoken to their ratepayers or they would have a feel for what their ratepayers…because that’s what that they are elected for.”

Ratepayer Lorraine Promhouse has been attending the meetings regularly in person and via Zoom for two years and isn’t happy with the decision. “That's my lifeline for knowing what’s going on in the RM. The website is supposed to provide the minutes, which it hasn’t since August and they don’t post the meeting dates...” she said. Like many ratepayers in the RM, the Promhouses have a lake property, but they don’t live there full-time year round with 1.5 hour round trip to attend the meeting in person and with frequent, lengthy in-camera sessions, which means sitting in the foyer until the Council returns.“It was more convenient for me on Zoom.” She said if she has to look after her grandkids, she can still watch the meeting on Zoom.

Councilor Sheila Fishley said she had stepped out of the meeting to complete some administrative work and wasn’t aware that Council had even voted. She didn’t feel that the Reeve intentionally called the vote while she was absent from the meeting. “Zoom doesn’t bother me,” she said, that it can help keep people in line.

The Reeve said the errors in the process were not intentional “this is the first time I’ve ever been Reeve so you’ve got to be patient with me a little bit. I’m trying to learn here as we go.”

The Reeve said aside from the restrictions being lifted - Council was trying to help the Administrator as there are multiple tasks to do while running the meeting, and Council wanted to utilize the board for looking at maps. “The Zoom thing we did because of the pandemic and I don’t think it was meant to be a long-term solution. The door is always open and people can always come and join the meeting.”

When asked if the RM consulted with ratepayers on the issue, Weisbrod said that many people he’s talked to aren’t aware that it’s an option. He acknowledged that it would make it more inconvenient for people who use it. The RM’s zoom audience has had a number of gallery watchers over the last few years. Often, there is only LMT and two-three other people. People will tune in if there is a subject they are interested in or if they are awaiting a development permit. “It’s easier for Council when people are there. If we are dealing with Buffalo Vista, it’s easier if Larry Macleod is there. All of those things make it easier for Council, and I know it’s an inconvenience for the people that just want to sit and listen. They are welcome to come and sit and listen there. If it can make it easier for us as Council and get through it faster and do a better job for us...” We asked Weisbrod if they were there for the people or themselves. “We are there for the people.” We asked “ if you are there for the people wouldn’t you want to make access more easily accessible” He responded, “I guess that’s a fair question.”

Larry Macleod said he used to attend meetings over Zoom but stopped because of the poor sound quality. He said he could understand why the new Reeve would like to have him in the room as it would be easier to interact with the RM if they had questions. (The RM has mostly addressed their technical issues since then and can interact with people in the Zoom gallery.)

Leanne Dufresne is another ratepayer that attends the meetings in person even though Zoom has been an option. “I think facial reactions and seeing people and the stuff in between is far more valuable than the motions…what was the discussion to get to that motion? That’s what I find very valuable.” Dufresne also noted that the RMs minutes hadn’t been updated recently.

CAO Knuttila said that minutes get put onto the website after they are signed. The September minutes have been signed and will be put on the website. The October minutes have been approved but not signed off.

Knuttila said Councillor Bob Bennett and the Reeve had brought up the topic around Zoom several times. She does not have an opinion and did not give a recommendation but pointed out the pros and cons. She said the Pros are “it gives public access, especially for resort people and ratepayers. I think it’s more convenient if someone wants to attend to have the Zoom going in your background rather than spending your day in the chambers.” Some of the cons Knuttila noted are being zoom bombed and the number of duties as an Administrator she is responsible for with minutes and handling the zoom waiting room simultaneously.

Knuttila says that the RM goes beyond the requirements under the Municipalities Act by posting the minutes to their website. “A number of municipalities across the province don’t post their minutes, don’t post their agendas. They say that if they want to see the minutes they can come in and pay twenty cents for photocopies or whatever the current rate is. That’s the extreme. And then there are other (municipalities) that are on all-net and not only do they post their agenda and their minutes but you can see all of the reports that have gone before Council. So when you look at that whole range Dufferin does pretty good.”

Knuttila said, “you are always trying to balance transparency with the council’s wishes and what they would like to see and I try to keep the website up to date...”

Knuttila said as the Reeve is new, he looks to her for directions but doesn’t want to appear as though she is “directing” him. When asked how she would respond if she saw Council discussing an item not to be in closed session, would she inform them? She said, “I’ve been told by different councils different things. Like it’s an administrator's responsibility to provide advice, but a lot of administrators take that to be to provide advice when asked for it. And I disagree with that somewhat...” She gave an example in which she advised Council in October when there was an item not to be discussed in camera.

Reeve Weisbrod wants people to understand that the Council is doing the best job it can and wants people to be patient with him as he learns his new role. He will look to the CAO for help navigating his new role and responsibilities and plans to revisit the Zoom topic at their next meeting.

Jennifer Argue, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Last Mountain Times