City Clerk Eyeing Provision in a Provincial Bill to Limit Public Participation of Council Meetings

News 100 redBy Pepper Parr

August 13th, 2020



This afternoon and probably well into the evening the Standing Committee on Corporate Service debated a change to the way council meets.

While operating under the rules put in place during the Emergency council was permitted to meet virtually which isn’t quite the same as meeting in city hall council chambers where we can see the members of council and catch the interplay between council and staff.

A staff report from the City Clerk would like Council to approve the amendment to Procedure By-law 04-2020, as amended to allow for electronic meetings to occur without a declaration of an emergency.

This report is supposed to be about: Building more citizen engagement, community health and culture

Background and Discussion:
In response to the COVID-19 virus, in March 2020 the City of Burlington closed all city facilities including city hall to public access. Over the following months the city had to shift much of its workforce to work remotely. As the city continues to operate, meetings must occur to ensure that the necessary approvals are obtained. At present the City of Burlington is slowly bringing in-person services back online.

March 16, 2020 – All city facilities, including city hall, were closed to the public. It was determined that all meetings during a three-week period would be cancelled including the regularly scheduled March City Council meeting.

March 19, 2020 – Ontario legislature passed Bill 187, the Municipal Emergency Act, 2020, to enable municipalities, during a declared emergency, the ability to allow for virtual participation, and to conduct Council meetings electronically with members who participate remotely being counted for the purpose of quorum.

March 24, 2020 – Special Council meeting held to enact necessary Procedure By-law amendments to allow remote participation. A meeting guide was posted to the city’s website which provides additional information on how virtual meetings will occur.

April 20, 2020 – Procedure By-law amendments to enable virtual delegations and to re-establish Committee of the Whole to allow for the city to be nimble when agenda planning.

May 25, 2020 – Proposed path forward to allow for statutory public meetings in accordance with the Planning Act R.S.O. 1990, and the addition of an August cycle of committee meetings.

July 21, 2020 – Ontario legislature passed Bill 197, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020, which allows for electronic meetings beyond a declared emergency, and proxy voting at Council.

During this time the Province has provided municipalities a framework for local councils to meet virtually. Based on the experience over the past months, Council and committee meetings may be required to be conducted virtually for some time.

On July 24, 2020, the Region of Halton moved into Stage 3 of Phase 2 of recovery. At the time of preparing this report, staff are seeking clarification on the indoor gathering sizes.

Should there be a change to public health guidelines and indoor gathering sizes, accommodations to the physical set up of Council Chambers may be introduced, based on advice from Halton Public Health and the City of Burlington’s facilities, and health and safety teams.

This is the point at which the Staff report should have ended.

The report goes on to say and suggest that the amendments afford local councils the ability to pass amendments to their procedure by-law to allow remote participation beyond a declared emergency and introduce the concept of proxy voting at council meetings.

If you give them the right to shut things down significantly and limit real public participation – they will use it.

In the report we are told that: “Bill 197 – the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020 On July 21, 2020 Bill 197 the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020 received royal assent. Bill 197 was an omnibus bill and contained several amendments to various acts. Amendments to the Municipal Act are contained in schedule 12 and focus on council procedure matters. The amendments afford local councils the ability to pass amendments to their procedure by-law to allow remote participation beyond a declared emergency and introduce the concept of proxy voting at council meetings.

Staff are recommending to amend the City of Burlington Procedure By-law to allow for remote participation at Council meetings after a declared emergency. Supporting the amendments would afford the municipality with additional flexibility when determining whether to maintain a declaration of an emergency.

These amendments will also be extended to standing committees and advisory committees of Council.

Council should be aware that once the declaration is lifted, all previous notice provisions for City Council are reinstated. The clerks department will work with staff to ensure that special meetings adhere to the 72-hour notice requirement.

Schedule 12 also introduced the ability for a municipality to pass procedure by-law amendments to afford for proxy voting at Council meetings. An excerpt of Schedule 12 related to proxy voting is provided as Appendix B which we will publish as a seperate article and link it to this article.

At this time an amendments package has not been provided to Council. Staff require additional time to review the legislation and recommend a path forward to Council.

During this time, staff will monitor other municipal units and their respective Councils to better understand how the legislation is used and the proxy voting rules implemented. There may be a benefit to allowing for proxy voting if a second or third wave to the pandemic occurs, the ability to use proxies may allow for greater flexibility to Council members. Advisory Committee Meetings During the past few months, staff took the time to refine the remote Council and standing committee processes. In addition, some City of Burlington advisory committees have also met virtually:

Audit Committee – June 10, 2020 (standing committee with members of the public) •

Committee of Adjustment – July 15, 2020  CoA met twice each week for a period of time to get caught up on the variance applications.  Those meetings went well.

Burlington Downtown Parking Advisory Committee – July 21, 2020

The balance of the committees will resume in September with the caveat that they will only convene to provide input on city business, or staff reports. The clerks department will work with the staff committee liaison, and the advisory committee chairs to ensure that this balance is achieved. Narrowing the scope will ensure that when the committees meet, they focus on advancing municipal business. It has been observed that virtual/remote meetings take longer than in-person meetings and require additional support to run. Residents may tune into the meeting by way of a weblink. Individuals who wish to delegate are able to submit a request by way of the clerks department.

The rules as established by the remote participation guide will apply. For reference, an excerpt of the remote participation guide regarding public participation will be provided as a seperate piece that will be linked to this article.

The advisory committee review is in process. At the April 20, 2020 Council meeting substantive direction was provided to staff. It is anticipated that initial pieces of the review will be brought forward in the fall, along with a schedule of when the balance of the staff direction deliverables may be presented.

With the current situation presented by COVID-19 and the public health recommendations to physically distance, holding in-person committee and Council meetings have become a challenge. With the recent amendments to the Municipal Act, by way of the Municipal Emergency Act 2020, and the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020, regarding remote participation at Council and committees of Council has allowed for City of Burlington business to continue. Staff are currently leveraging technology to ensure that the advisory committees will be brought online in September.

Options Considered
Other models or combinations of participation were discussed at length. (Who took part in those discussions? Just the bureaucrats and maybe a couple of Councillors?)

Staff will continue to monitor public health, in terms of indoor gathering sizes and best practices. Should there be a change in how Council meetings are physically set up, staff will advise Council and the general public through the communications department. Any changes must be in lockstep with advice from Halton Public Health and upon the review of plans by the City of Burlington facilities, and health and safety teams.

The cost amounts to acquiring a Zoom license. Planning acquired their own Zoom license to ensure that there is no overlap of meetings, as one license can only conduct one meeting at a time.

There is no reason at this point in time to move on the report recommendations.

Council chamber - new lookSometime in November, assuming the infection numbers remain low (the colder weather may bring on an increase – we just don’t know yet) Council should be able to resume normal meeting set ups.  There is more than enough room to spread them out around the horse shoe and put staff  further back in the Chamber and provide just two rows of seats for the public and keep spaces of at least six feet between participants.

It can be done – all it takes is a will on the part of the administration with strong direction from Council.

The Gazette’s assumption is that those elected really want the electors to be in the room.


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2 comments to City Clerk Eyeing Provision in a Provincial Bill to Limit Public Participation of Council Meetings

  • Rob n

    Good reporting Mr. Parr. Lots of detail.

    I agree, the meetings should take place in person. Remote meetings Will not enhance civic engagement.

    However, If Council does opt for remote meetings, there should be a time limit. Ie to be reviewed after three months.

    As an aside: Why the need for a Zoom license? Don’t they have MS Teams? Better functionality and more secure (last time I checked).

    • david barker

      Fundamentally I believe Council members whenever possible should be physically present at Council meetings. However if a councillor cannot physically attend, then attendance by remote means should be allowed. It should be the exception not the rule. The preference should always be to have councilors be called to account in person.

      But members of the public should always now be allowed to participate remotely – mail in votes and video/audio remote delegations. Just like with the “mail in ballots” discussion south of the boarder any secure improvement in our electoral or debate process that allows eligible people to participate must be embraced.