A disapointed Langley City Council has resumed virtual meetings after an attempt to hold an in-person council meetings found councillors were having trouble hearing each other over COVID-19 protective plastic dividers.
At the Monday, Sept. 29 meeting, council voted to carry on with electronic meetings while staff try to solve the issues uncovered during the in-person meeting experiment on Sept. 14.
In his report to council, Langley City Chief Administrative Officer Francis Cheung said the see-through barriers made it hard for council members to hear each other, especially when the microphones were turned off for a confidential closed-door discussion.
Another potential problem was the limit of 19 people allowed in council chambers “which would make participation by the public at public hearings problematic.”
It also costs extra to have additional staff on hand to guide members of the public, Cheung warned.
Cheung said virtual meetings should continue until those issues can be resolved, possibly through a “hybrid” mix of in-person and virtual technology, where, for example, members of council could meet in chambers to hear from the public via streaming video.
“It’s a work in progress,” Cheung told the Langley Advance Times.
Councillor Gayle Martin thought in-person meetings should be possible, given the usually light attendance for council sessions.
“Unless there’s an incredible wave of the public against something,” turnout is usually modest, with many empty seats, Martin noted.
She also questioned the need to have extra staff direct people attending a council meeting.
Councillor Nathan Pachal pointed to the trouble hearing other members of council and the likelihood of an increase in coronavirus cases as reasons to continue virtual meetings.
“We are just starting the second wave of COVID,” Pachal said.
Coun. Rudy Storteboom said it could turn into a positive, that the city “could actually have more people attend electronically than in-person, in these times.”
Coun. Rosemary Wallace complained the virtual meetings have left her feeling “disconnected” from other members of council.
Con, Teri James was “super-disappointed” it didn’t work out.
Coun. Paul Albrecht remarked that he found it “invaluable to meet and see eye-to-eye.”
Since March, City council meetings have been held using video conferencing, with the live broadcasts archived online at the City YouTube channel.
A number of other local governments are resuming in-person public meetings, Cheung said, including Abbotsford, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and the Fraser Valley Regional District.
Cheung noted the province is encouraging municipal governments to “make best efforts” at resuming public meetings.
Media relations at Langley Township, in response to a Langley Advance Times query said “plans are being developed to allow for Mayor and Councillors to safely attend Council meetings in-person, but a [precise] date has not been set.”
In late June, the Township announced the council chambers will be open to the public, but council members would not be present.
Seating was reconfigured in the council chambers, the Fraser River Presentation Theatre, for the open portions of council meetings to allow for social distancing, limits on meeting sizes, and other restrictions required by provincial health authorities.
Gallery seating for the public will be limited to 20 people.
The Township is also limiting numbers of riders in the elevators and the new procedures are posted.
Council members will be attending the meetings electronically and will not be physically present.