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Wouldn't it be nice to have a meeting in-person again (and how)?

This week on Market Squared, we consider the logic and logistics of going back to in-person council meetings.
20201026 Guelph Council Chambers 2 RV
Guelph city council chambers. Richard Vivian/GuelphToday

There was once a point in this pandemic where it was assumed that all we had to do was get vaccines, get the majority of people vaccinated, and then life would get back to normal.

As with most things in life, it’s more complicated.

On Thursday, this region hit the 75 per cent mark in having the eligible population totally vaccinated, but that number is just over 65 per cent once you take into account kids under 12, who aren’t able to get their shots yet. Still, in Guelph alone, over 82 per cent of eligible people have been fully vaccinated, and that’s an amazing milestone.

I mention all this as a preamble to a debate that’s been in the back of my mind the last few months: When do we go back to holding city council meetings in the actual council chambers?

Let me preface this by saying that there are things with the virtual format that should be, and likely will be, part of the regular council program as we continue.

That would include things like remote delegations, which are handy not just for pandemic democracy, but for people with kids at home, or people who work long hours and don’t want to wolf down their dinner so they can get downtown by 6 p.m. Also, and this is a matter of personal taste, but watching council meetings online got so much better once we lost the static wide shot from back of the chambers.

Still, managing government is a hands-on job, and you can’t use your hands remotely.

It seems that Guelph/Eramosa Township council understands that, and this week they debated a return to in-person meetings. After some discussion among the still virtually present councillors, it was decided they will try it again live and in-person on September 7.

Now, I can count on my hand the number of Guelph/Eramosa Township council meetings I’ve been to, and they were all virtual, but my guess is that there are some structural advantages that allow that council to get back to in-person meetings a little easier than we could in Guelph.

Now let me tell you why we should try anyway.

The political process is confrontational by nature; I must confront your point of view, and you must confront mine as we both navigate our arguments to find some common space. You can’t really get that friction sitting in different boxes on WebEx, where the face of your opponent melts into a collage of other faces.

Council also needs the public gallery. No one’s probably going to endorse the idea of packing them in like sardines as what happens when select issues like libraries and water-taking come to council, but there is value in making council look at the face of constituents as they make decisions. Yes, there are decorum rules in council, but you can say a lot with a smile. Or a scowl.

I also think there’s value in being forced to get up and go to a different physical location for a meeting. I admit that I’ve been struggling with this myself. For the most recent episode of my movie review show on CFRU, I had to go to the theatre to see the movie in question after learning, much to my disappointment, that it was unavailable on streaming.

My suspicion is that the longer it takes to get back into old routines, the harder it’s going to be. That’s how it’s been for me, but I have a feeling that I’m not the only one.

And speaking of my own personal point of view, I think we’ve all become a little too comfortable conducting business from home.

For me, and I’ve talked about this before, I’m now watching council meetings with my own live (and rowdy) colour commentary, which is something I definitely cannot do while watching a meeting happen from the media desk in the council chambers. I imagine there will be only so many times I can sigh loudly and ask, “Are you kidding me?” before I will be asked to leave.

But at the same time, I think the councillors themselves, and maybe they’ll agree, are too comfortable doing meetings from home. Who cares if a meeting goes on till midnight, when all you have to do is turn off the computer and walk upstairs to go to bed? Sitting in City Hall till midnight though, you definitely feel that!

Now, I understand that going back to in-person meetings, especially with the Delta pendulum rocking over our heads, is a difficult proposition, and it comes with a unique series of logistical challenges, but I would like to see council debate those issues when they reconvene in September. What are the challenges? How can they be overcome? Maybe we can try it once and see how it goes?

Despite the ongoing concerns about the Delta variant and getting the last 20 per cent of people vaccinated, we’ve set the tone, as a society, to continue the push to a semi-normal status; we’re doing it with businesses, we’re doing it with schools, and we’re doing it with our post-secondary institutions.

Should we treat our local government differently? And if not Guelph, where nearly nine out of 10 people have at least one dose of a vaccine, then where?


Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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