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City debuts electronic council meeting as it deals with pandemic response

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April 28 marked the first electronic council meeting in the history of the Kawartha Lakes – and it passed with few glitches.

After passing a new bylaw to make the meeting legal, the clerk, CAO, mayor and all eight councillors spent the next two hours discussing and deliberating how the city has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Electronic participation could include telephone, video or audio conferencing, with all votes noted by a show of hands or verbal consent indicted by a “yes” or “no” response.

More than 80 people watched the two-hour meeting from beginning to end, and the passing of the bylaw did produce some questions and public controversy regarding a clause deep in the document.

The clause states, “Meetings will proceed without deputations. Written correspondence received from the public may be circulated to council members prior to the start of a meeting electronically.”

Joan Abernethy, a keen observer of council, is concerned at this clause eliminating public deputations.

“Zoom technology allows public participation. Please ask council to discuss and propose amending this section to allow the public to make deputations during this and any future emergencies that restrict in-person meetings. Otherwise, constituents may wonder what has happened to democracy,” she stated in an email to the Advocate.

Cathie Ritchie, the city clerk, says electronic council meetings are only permitted while under a state of emergency.

Once the state of emergency is lifted, she says, “we will return to in-person meetings.”

While under the state of emergency the city is not holding committee of the whole meetings, she says.

“Deputations are permitted at committee of the whole and not regular council unless speaking on a specific agenda item. However, public input can be provided by correspondence,” Ritchie tells the Advocate.

The clerk concludes, “If we are to continue for much longer (under the state of emergency) we will investigate other options for public participation.”

CAO’s pandemic update response

During the first electronic council meeting, Kawartha Lakes CAO Ron Taylor shared with council the city’s pandemic response update. The CAO provided a detailed overview of city operations since the province declared a state of emergency on March 17.

He also shared that city-sanctioned Canada Day celebrations right across Kawartha Lakes have been cancelled for 2020.

Taylor believes that the provincial order, due to expire in two weeks, will likely be extended, perhaps until May 31, the current date chosen by the province to keep all publicly funded schools shuttered.

The CAO praised all the city’s partners who have been key in battling the pandemic effectively including the paramedic service, fire and police and the public health unit. He was pleased to share that since March 25 the city has seen no need for additional local emergency orders.

Taylor thanked the people of Kawartha Lakes for their cooperation over the last six weeks saying that the police and bylaw enforcement staff have had very few pandemic-related distancing calls.

Food and housing stability

The CAO reported that the city has received $1.8 million from the province in food and housing stability funding that is shared on a per capita basis with Haliburton County. The city has also received $70,000 from the province in emergency funding for Victoria Manor. That money will be delivered in two installments.

He made it clear that the priority of the city since March 17 has been to maintain critical emergency services. Everything else has been deemed non-essential.

Taylor reported that all community gatherings through to the end of June remain cancelled, including Canada Day celebrations that fall July 1. Decisions regarding community gatherings in July and August are being looked at currently.

An announcement will be forthcoming in the next 14 days that will impact events as diverse as summer camps, cottage association mixers and community sports.

The CAO reminded council that road repairs continue to be done on an emergency basis only.

Taylor shared that the layoff of over 300 city staff was very difficult. An additional 40 city staff have taken advantage of a city offer for voluntary staff leaves.

He said the city will need to revise all 2020 work plans to focus on community and corporate recovery.

The floor was then opened to questions from council. Councillor Pat Dunn asked which non-essential projects had been suspended, wondering particularly about the cultural centre study.

“We want to understand our long-term fiscal health before making any decisions. We will report back to council on May 26 with a defer or cancel list of city projects,” Taylor said.

Councillor Ron Ashmore then asked if the province lifts its state of emergency on May 12 how will the city respond.

Letham suggested that if that occurred Kawartha Lakes would likely follow suit.

Taylor added that decisions are not made in vacuums. There will be much input before the local emergency is lifted.

The next scheduled meeting is May 26.

Kirk is a retired high school history teacher and coach who has had a lifelong interest in politics at all levels. Since retiring, Kirk has spent the last three years doing freelance writing of all kinds for various platforms. Kirk can often be found sitting in the press gallery at City Hall observing and reporting on the vagaries of local government.

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