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I'm fine with virtual city council meetings (for now)

This week in Market Squared, we at the reasons why we don't need in-person council meetings right, even though that would be nice
20200617 cam guthrie ts
Cam Guthrie votes during a recent online council meeting.

In the COVID-19 era, the desire to get back to normal bristles against the reality of the situation that until there’s a vaccine, rushing to reach 100 per cent normalcy is a fool’s errand.

We’ve seen that with appropriate precautions – hand washing, masking, and physical distancing – we can create a facsimile of normal, and the biggest test of that will be the re-opening of schools over the next few weeks. Everyone’s hoping for the best, but are accepting that the worst is possible, if not likely. Even a satisfactory mark in the range of a C, or C-minus, will be a huge victory in the Back to School effort.  

That’s why I read one letter to GuelphToday last week with interest, a call to start holding physically distant, in-person council meetings.

Let me first note my personal preference for in-person council meetings. As an observer of council proceedings myself, part of my job is to not just chronicle what arguments are made, and what motions are passed. Part of covering how the sausage gets made is to watch the body language of the sausage makers, and to get a read on the group reaction of those that come out to watch the sausage making.

I can cite numerous examples of how the feeling of a room can create friction around the horseshoe. I’ve seen repeatedly how one delegate speaking to council can feed on the majority feeling of a gallery full of people and use that collective emotion. There’s nothing like the political high you get from a really controversial night at council!

So having said all that, I’m fine with the current system of virtual council meetings.

Let’s consider the arguments.

First, city clerk Stephen O’Brien has said for the record at least a couple of times (and definitely once on my podcast) that a so-called “hybrid” option is not possible. Either this is going to get done remotely, or this is going to be done in-person as an all or nothing proposition. It’s got to be one way or the other.

Second, you can’t physically distant in the council chamber. The letter writer specifically mentioned "contentious" meetings coming up and having been to a number of "contentious" council meetings, I know that those are standing room only occasions. The maximum occupancy of the council chambers is 200 people, and while it will be possible to close off seats in the gallery, you can’t move sections of the horseshoe around to get the requisite two metres distance between seats.

So how about a change of venue? We’re not using the Sleeman Centre right now, or the River Run Centre, and I can see how one might achieve physically distant council meetings at those locations. Still, I imagine though that there’s some substantial costs to turning those venues into temporary council chambers, and that would include re-creating the tech needed to broadcast council meetings that’s already built in at the council chambers.

The real issue, and I’ve noted it before, is Guelph’s rampant technophobia.

The person who wrote the letter to the made a special point to say that they have not watched any of the virtual council meetings, but they did not say why. Is it a matter of internet access, which is a legitimate issue and has not been adequately addressed in any of discussions about life in this pandemic world, or is it a matter of taste?

I’m leaning to the latter because I’ve been continually surprised about the hesitancy in our political class about embracing technology. There are still far too many councillors with zero social media presence for my liking, and one would think that these pandemic times would make those politicians seek out new tools for outreach with their constituents in lieu of the in-person.

There is a learning curve with these new systems and ways of doing business, but I’ve been genuinely concerned at times that some of our city’s politicians are starting out on a backfoot. You may think this is an argument for in-person council meetings, and it’s not. It’s an argument that people need to get with the times.

Making it to the end of this pandemic means keeping everyone healthy and safe long enough to take a vaccine, and that means mitigating risk as much as possible. Yeah, I know, schools, but there are many reasons for opening schools from the development of socialization skills to making sure all kids graduate with a comparable amount of knowledge and skill.

In terms of the simple matter of getting the business of the City of Guelph done, we can keep doing that remotely. At least for the time being. Do I still want to be holding these meetings virtually if our new case count is the same or less this time next year? We’ll talk.

In the meantime, I know there’s a lot of passion about certain upcoming issues, but I think we know that if there’s one thing that the internet is good at it’s being a vessel for our anger.