View Royal is set to become the latest municipality in Greater Victoria to stream council meetings online as local governments look for ways to improve transparency in the age of COVID-19.
Mayor David Screech said the town had been talking about purchasing the necessary technology even before the pandemic hit.
But with residents now barred from attending meetings in person, council accelerated its plans and expects to air its first meeting this month.
“We’re still working on it, but it’s our hope that we’re going to be livestreaming for the first time,” Screech said. “We’ve never livestreamed before and the public will be able to phone in and speak to us through a speakerphone in real time.”
Most municipalities in the capital region began livestreaming their meetings long before the outbreak, and were better positioned to keep their meetings “open” to scrutiny, even though public participation remains a challenge.
Others, such as View Royal, Langford and Metchosin had to make adjustments on the fly.
A series of ministerial orders permitted municipalities to hold meetings electronically and without the public present. But, more recently, the province has made clear that it expects local governments to provide ways for the public to listen to meetings or watch them live.
With the exception of an electronic public hearing a few weeks ago, View Royal citizens have been largely unable to do that, although they were able to submit their comments in writing and view meeting minutes after the fact.
That hasn’t gone over well with some residents. Dave Eliason was among those who wrote to council last month, objecting to the lack of public input on a proposed development on his street and the inability to see or hear the developer respond to questions from council and residents.
“Pandemic or not, more transparency has to happen with council meetings and development/ rezoning applications,” he wrote.
Others pointed to neighbouring jurisdictions and the opportunities for residents there to watch meetings online.
Screech said council heard those concerns and has delayed dealing with that development until the livestreaming technology is up and running as of July 7.
He said staff have yet to report on the final cost of the move to livestreaming, but council allocated up to $40,000 in the budget for the equipment.
“We encouraged them to get a really good system in place because, obviously, we’re going to be dealing with this for the long term, so it’s important for the public to see the meetings and be able to participate in a quality way,” Screech said.
Langford, by contrast, continues to resist a move to livestreaming. Instead, it has put a teleconferencing system in place during the pandemic so that people can dial in and listen to a meeting. If they wish to participate, they can press a button to have their comments heard by council.
Coun. Denise Blackwell said livestreaming isn’t in the plans at this point.
“So far, it’s not been something we’ve entertained ... mainly just because it’s a lot of money.”
Blackwell said council hasn’t had requests from Langford residents to livestream the meetings. “The only people we’ve heard about that from is the Grumpy Taxpayer$,” she said.
Stan Bartlett, who chairs the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, wrote a commentary in the Times Colonist last year asking why Langford council was so “camera-shy” and urged the fast-growing municipality to embrace a higher degree of transparency and accountability.
Bartlett said in an interview that the watchdog group continues to have significant concerns about Langford’s approach.
He said livestreaming meetings and posting the recorded videos on municipal websites for later viewing allows for greater access to municipal government, particularly for people who are working or otherwise unable to attend one of Langford’s meetings, which typically begin at 5:30 p.m.
“We think full transparency fosters public support, trust and confidence,” he said. “And what they are doing is not the actions of a council that has much respect for its taxpayers, quite frankly.
“Virtually every jurisdiction that I know of, of any size, has livestreaming and there’s reasons for that. People are busy. People take holidays and are not around to catch a meeting. People do shift work. Most people at 5:30 p.m. are driving home. How do you get to a meeting?”
As well, he said, many council issues are complicated. Livestream recordings of a meeting allow members of the public to review the proceedings at their leisure to try to understand a particular debate or decision.
Bartlett disputed Blackwell’s claim about expense, noting that most other municipalities have adopted livestreaming.
“It’s a prosperous, growing jurisdiction,” he said of Langford. “So I think that’s a flimsy excuse and unacceptable. I don’t know if she could put a price on good governance and allowing the public to participate and be informed. How do you put a price on that? That’s what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s their job.”
Metchosin Mayor John Ranns also cited cost as the reason his district has yet to adopt livestreaming for its meetings.
“We looked into it,” he said. “We had a report done on it, but it’s a matter of money more than anything. We don’t have a big budget.”
Metchosin residents, like those in View Royal, have been unable to watch or listen to their council’s electronic meetings in real time or participate other than through written submissions. Unlike Langford, however, Metchosin has been posting video recordings of its electronic meetings to the district’s website so that people could watch and listen to them later.
Ranns said he didn’t like the fact that the public were largely excluded, which is one of the reasons his district has moved to again allow people to attend meetings in person. Up to 12 people are permitted into council chambers at a time in order to adhere to physical distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I just felt it was important that we get back to at least giving the impression of some sense of normalcy,” he said. “I mean, when you’re doing business it’s better to do it face to face anyway, I find.”
Ranns said council meetings typically drew 30 to 40 people before the pandemic. So if 12 spots prove insufficient, council will look for other ways to improve access, and could revisit the idea of adopting livestream technology, he said.
“If there’s a big lineup of people that can’t get in, we will certainly do something else.”
David Black, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University, said the pandemic could help to redefine what public participation in municipal meetings and hearings looks like.
He said livestreaming is clearly the “gold standard” in terms of allowing people to participate in a meeting when they’re unable to attend in person.
“You are, as much as possible, kind of in the room,” he said. “You have a camera that is panning the whole room. You can see people’s reactions. There’s a richer informational environment than with even video conferencing platforms or, certainly, with regular telephone conference calls.”
Black said councils have been given a lot of latitude before now in terms of defining what an “open” meeting means, and it’s perhaps time for the province to provide more direction. “In this case, I’d like to see councils given some guidance and maybe asked to raise their game with respect to the benefits of livestreaming, relative to these other technological options,” he said.