Advisory committees in the City of Vancouver might be forced to either start meeting in person or go on hiatus due to a disagreement between the city and provincial government.
Emergency provincial regulations that allowed for virtual municipal meetings expire on Sept. 29, and the city has told its advisory bodies they must comply.
The city believes the province would need to amend the Vancouver Charter to explicitly allow committees to continue meeting virtually, but the Ministry of Municipal Affairs believes the city can hold virtual or hybrid meetings for all committees.
The issue is being closely watched by the many volunteers who make up the city's advisory committees, some of whom either face accessibility issues in getting to city hall, are immunocompromised, or are concerned about gathering in person while the fourth wave of the pandemic continues.
"We need to feel that we're appreciated," said Laura Mackenrot, co-chair of the Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee.
And if ... our members are going to be volunteering their time, we don't want to risk ourselves, or our family members in our lives, to be going into city hall."
Under the former rules, people attending virtually could not vote and did not count toward quorum. Mackenrot said the pandemic regulations had made her committee more productive.
"We've had the best numbers for participation," she said, adding it had helped both people who faced physical accessibility challenges and parents who had difficulties finding childcare.
Councils can keep meeting virtually
While Vancouver says it is stymied for its volunteer committees, its among many municipalities to have passed a bylaw allowing virtual council meetings after Sept. 29 — or hybrid meetings, in which councillors can choose where they participate.
In addition, many municipalities have tweaked regulations allowing the public to continue phoning in comments instead of having to attend physically.
"In the past you … would have to sit around and wait for your item to come up and then wait for your speaking spot to come up. And it could take hours out of the day," said Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry.
On Tuesday, Vancouver council met in person for the first time in 18 months, but it will allow councillors to attend virtually should they choose.
Fry hopes a similar solution can be found for committees, but says there will be challenges.
"If [most people] are there physically, virtually it's difficult to sort of read the cues around the room, it's difficult to get a word in edgewise," he said.
"So, there's work to be done to figure out how a hybrid really does operate and function."