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Councillor's multi-tasking during meeting causes friction

Victoria city council will consider a pair of similar motions Thursday aimed at clarifying the rules around how councillors participate in meetings remotely, prompted by Coun. Ben Isitt’s efforts to multi-task during a meeting last week.
Photo - Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt
Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt

Victoria city council will consider a pair of similar motions Thursday aimed at clarifying the rules around how councillors participate in meetings remotely, prompted by Coun. Ben Isitt’s efforts to multi-task during a meeting last week.

Isitt phoned into a committee of the whole meeting held Jan. 28 while overseeing the installation of a tent at the south end of Cook Street, where community warming tents provide outreach to people sheltering in Beacon Hill Park.

Coun. Stephen Andrew took issue with Isitt’s behaviour, calling it “offensive” to Victoria residents.

“I wonder if there is any rules that are in order if people are joining remotely that they actually be focused on this meeting and not doing other work, because I cannot understand how you can be wandering around the city and also be attuned to this council meeting,” Andrew said at the end of Thursday’s meeting.

Isitt said in an interview he chose to participate in the committee meeting while “passively observing” installation of the tent.

“In retrospect, I probably should have just given the committee meeting a pass, but there was a contractor on site and I considered that I could follow the meeting while just being on site,” he said.

The warming tent at Cook Street and Dallas Road is operated by Red Cedar Cafe Society, which Isitt said he founded at the start of the pandemic. It was initially meant to provide a temporary meal service for people who lost their jobs before government relief became available. The society now operates a pay-what-you-can cafe providing meals in the former Paul’s Motor Inn.

In December, the society hired managers and Isitt stepped back from some of his duties, but he continues to volunteer and remains one of the society’s 11 board members, he said.

“At times, that’s involved juggling council duties with volunteer duties. And now that the society that I helped found has managers and other staff, I’m able to devote more time to my council duties,” he said.

In response to the conflict, Andrew put forward a motion asking staff to look into amending a bylaw so that councillors participating remotely must be on video during meetings, allowing fellow councillors to hear and see them.

Councillors Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Marianne Alto also signed the motion.

Thornton-Joe said councillors had previously agreed informally to enable their cameras when speaking, and Andrew’s motion came about out of frustration with Isitt during last week’s meeting, when he said he was having difficulty connecting his video.

“I guess it was just sort of the last straw that there was some frustration that it was delaying the meeting while we waited for a colleague to get on,” she said.

The issue with Isitt’s video led to confusion about how his votes were counted and dragged the meeting out, Thornton-Joe said.

Isitt has filed a motion of his own that would require councillors to be visible on video only when speaking. The motion also asks council members to inform legislative services staff when they leave a virtual meeting to ensure proper minutes and attendance is kept.

Council is expected to ­consider both motions Thursday.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com