The times of COVID have proven to be challenging ones for all of us and for Prince Rupert City Council, just moving on with the public face of governance has apparently delivered no shortage of issues to deal with.
From the still to be developed ability to host some form of Public Hearing to move forward on a range of civic priorities, to the opportunity for local residents to comment on upcoming housing issues or other concerns of note, the lack of a public engagement strategy is creating a growing divide between the local officials and the residents they serve.
The most prominent display as to how COVID precautions have interrupted the traditional work of City Council is through the twice a month (most months) City Council Session, the gathering of elected officials and senior staff to share some information on key policy issues and the day to day work of a community.
For those that take the time to follow along at home these days, the last time that most of the city's elected officials gathered together in person at City Hall was November 9th, 2020.
Since the November 23rd session, the City Council format that has been adopted is that of a radio Call in show for the most part, the Mayor serving as host, with some supporting help from the Corporate Administrator and on occasion the City's Financial Officer or City Manager.
Everyone else phones in from their remote locations and if they are paying attention on Council, that is making for a mess to be honest, of how the council is projecting their work on our behalf.
As it currently is set up (play the video at the top of the story), Council is making use of an archaic telephone system for the meetings, which has a few issues to solve it would seem.
While most of us are in the world of video conferencing these days, City council has taken us back to the days of Alexander Bell asking Watson if he can hear him ... with the frequent refrain that of 'whomever has the TV on please turn it down ... please turn it down ... please turn it down', making for one of the most important themes of recent sessions.
The current presentation is one that leaves many of the councillors comments lost or distorted, the ambient noises from wherever they are calling from making for too many distractions and at times drowns out the participants providing some important background information.
The current system also offers no actual verification as to who is in attendance, the only way to know, is by way of monitoring the questions and answers if you can decipher them, as to who is participating on any given night.
While it's understandable that with COVID, the ability to meet in public session is complicated, Council has yet to explain why after some three months of this call it in process, they can't hold Council sessions in a larger venue such as the Lester Centre, or Civic Centre, taking appropriate spacing and measures for personal protection.
Unless the council members have all sequestered themselves at home for the last few months, they surely by now have gone shopping for Groceries, or attended to their day jobs which as we know all require measures to ensure safety.
There surely must be some options available to hold to a live stream of a bubble meeting of the seven members of Council twice a month, while we all await the COVID vaccinations that offer a return to more normal times.
Other communities it seems continue to find ways to work around COVID, Terrace recently hosted a significant special meeting on land use that attracted some vibrant conversation that lasted almost two hours and offered a range of comments to the Council members, all of it steamed live to the public at home, providing for a full and transparent account of what was a very controversial topic.
Port Edward recently moved to an online stream that includes the opportunity for residents to comment at the end of the session if they wish, bringing back the opportunity for Council members to hear directly from the public.
Though in the case of the District, it may be an idea to archive those sessions on their Facebook page for residents to access later to see what's up as that community moves forward with its plans.
|Council group shot for those who may have forgotten what |
the council members look like, visuals perhaps
subject to change post COVID sequestering
(photo from home mailer from the City of PR)
At Monday's Price Rupert Council session, the collective hosted a return to one of the few public access options residents have to use, that of the Committee of the Whole session, which included the opportunity for the public to participate, sort of.
The Prince Rupert version of keeping in touch requires anyone with an item of note to contact the Corporate Administrator by voicemail or email to register their concerns, which Ms. Rosa Miller will then apparently read aloud to the Council Chamber on the council nights.
In effect adding the duties of Town Crier it seems to her growing portfolio of tasks.
On Monday, there were no such comments to share, no one apparently providing a contribution within the seven days required lead time; though to be fair to the folks at home, few probably knew of the opportunity to comment with the Notice only posted the Friday before the meeting, tucked away on the civic website.
It's not really all that surprising that no one participated, the list of rules to do so is somewhat daunting, the heads up towards participation somewhat lacking, none of it conducive to an easy flow for community engagement.
In June of 2020, Councillor Barry Cunningham cautioned Council to ensure that COVID-19 did not result in a lack of communication with the residents of the community, something they may want to look back at to see how they've fared over time when it comes to that cautionary note.
"This is a very important piece of our planning that is going to come in the future and I really think public engagement is something that we've got to really look at carefully. By using COVID-19 as you know, sort of something that is going to block a lot of communication and that. I think we need to definitely find a way around it. Whether its a survey we put out in the paper or online or something like that ... I really think the overall picture, we've got to take a careful look at it, because so many times I've heard people say well I didn't know anything about that. And I know we've advertised it and everything, but how we're going to get it out to the public this time to get it right, I think is very important"-- Councillor Barry Cunningham speaking to Council in June of 2020 about the need to communicate with the public
If the Council members can't meet together with proper safety measures, they should explain why and then find another way of delivering their information beyond scratchy telephone calls.
After all the city owns its own communication company, surely CityWest can offer up some advice.
At the moment the perception for a number of residents is that of a distant council that isn't hearing the community's concerns, their way of presentation of their work may have something to do with that.
Perhaps they could make some calls around the region to see how other communities are keeping their residents informed and part of the process, liberating some of their solutions towards use in Prince Rupert.
For more notes on Monday's council session see our Council Timeline feature here.
A wider overview of past Council discussion themes is available here.