Woodlands County Council held a special meeting on Thursday, September 9, to discuss how the group would meet for the next while. Alicia Bourbeau, Director of Corporate Services, explained that changes laid out by the Province of Alberta on September 4 reinstated some of the masking initiatives that were previously in place.
"Administration is before Council today to understand your desire for how to hold meetings in the future, in light of the new regulations that have been implemented by the Province." There are two regularly scheduled meetings for Woodlands County Council before the October election, September 21 and October 5.
"We're wondering if Council has the appetite to make those virtual meetings as we await further instruction from the province," spoke Bourbeau. She said that some committee meetings that had already been advertised as face-to-face meetings would become hybrid meetings instead. "We will make certain that electronic-type means are available, and if individuals are unable to do the meeting electronically or prefer to come into the office because it was advertised that way, we will just ensure that our social distancing is as good as the Province recommends, if not better."
Mayor John Burrows asked what the options were for being in person. "We could still hold the special meetings, but we'd have to make adaptations to the council chambers to put barriers in or mask, or both. What's the specific recommendation from the Province?" Bourbeau explained that Administration was within the guidelines. "If you are not sitting stationary in your office, then you are masked as moving about through the building. We do have space within Council Chambers to increase the distance between members, and wearing masks would be the recommendation." She added that they have looked into getting barriers but that the timeframe before the next meeting (September 21) might be too tight to get them installed.
Mayor Burrows stated that a face-to-face meeting was much more effective. "You get to see a lot more and get to communicate a lot clearer. We've been dealing with these virtual meetings for quite some time, and we have good bandwidth and good capability to do it now, so we can certainly continue with them." He said that in-person was his preference but would go either way, based on the rest of Council.
Councillor Ron Govenlock, who had previously brought up his concerns with safety protocols at in-person meetings, spoke up. "We're trying, I think, to skirt the conversation that took place at the last council meeting with regard to in-person council meetings and that safety protocols need to be in place at Council Chambers. The motion that was put forward at that particular time was to ask Administration to come back with a legal opinion, which I'm assuming is going to be on the agenda for the next council meeting."
He said that having that item on the next agenda would create an opportunity for "further debate on what safety protocols need to be implemented throughout the county." He said that he didn't have any issues with virtual meetings for the next bit. "The understanding that I have is that COVID isn't going away and that the safety protocols include plexiglass barriers between council members as well as possibly plexiglass barriers between the entire council and the chambers."
He said that he felt unsure if Administration would be looking at all the various safety protocols. "I think the issue isn't going to go away just because we go from in-person council meetings to virtual council meetings. Somewhere along the line, people need to have the opportunity to have conversations with the residents and the council as a group. I expect that conversation and that material will be on the September 21 agenda, and I'm not sure if the Administration that is present will confirm that or not." Councillor Govenlock was referring to the fact that CAO Gordon Frank was not present in the meeting. His question of whether the next meeting's agenda would include his inquiry into the legal options available to Woodlands County, specific to attendance at council meetings, was not answered.
The group voted unanimously to move Woodlands County Council meetings to the online format. The public can watch meetings live on the County's YouTube platform and watch the most recently recorded session. However, previous meetings are typically deleted once a new meeting takes place. Unlike the Town of Whitecourt, Woodlands County had continued streaming their meetings live even after they returned to in-person attendance.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press