The Village of Masset council began to discuss reconfiguring their meetings last week to allow members of the public and media to attend remotely, following the release of a B.C. Ombudsperson report that found barring the public from attending “open” council meetings went beyond the minister of public safety’s authority.
According to the agenda for the regular meeting on June 22, council meeting configuration going forward was discussed as a new business item.
Chief administrative officer Trevor Jarvis later told the Observer the Village of Masset council chambers are too small to accommodate more than about seven people.
As such, Jarvis said the village will likely provide call-in information before the next regular meeting on July 13 so that members of the public and media can join remotely.
“We’re going to do our best to comply,” he said of opening the meetings.
Members of the public and media have not had access to Masset council meetings for months, since B.C. first declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 in March.
The Masset municipal office did not provide teleconferencing or online platforms as the villages of Queen Charlotte and Port Clements have done.
Ministerial Order M083 issued by the ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing on March 26 stated that even though councils could disallow public attendance at open meetings under the pandemic circumstances, those meetings would not be considered closed.
That ministerial order was rescinded and replaced by a new order on May 1, along with a news release which said that public input is an essential part of decision-making.
“As public input is an essential part of land-use decision-making, even for those decisions that do not require a public hearing, local governments are still expected to find ways to encourage public participation,” stated the release.
On June 12, Marielle Tounsi, public affairs officer for the ministry of municipal affairs and housing, said the May ministerial order replacing the earlier directive was written to allow local governments to hold council and board meetings using electronic methods.
“Local governments continue to be required to follow procedural and transparency rules and are encouraged to provide online streaming of council and council committee meetings that include opportunities for ‘real-time’ question and answers to encourage communication and support public engagement,” she said.
However, B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke released a report on June 22 called “Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Measures: Two Ministerial orders made under the Emergency Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic” that found both ministerial orders were illegal.
Even though the new local government order was an improvement, Chalke said it still suspended or amended B.C. statutes, which is the main issue the Ombudsperson had found in the original order (M139).
During a provincial emergency, the solicitor general has extraordinary powers, and Chalke said his office investigated “whether those extra powers include the ability for the minister to suspend or temporarily amend B.C. statutes and we concluded the minister does not have that authority, even in an emergency.”
Chalke said he recognizes that speed is important in responding to the pandemic; however, “while the intent and even the content of these orders may be worthy, that is not enough.”
“Every exercise of public authority in a democratic system must find its source in law,” Chalke stated in a June 22 press release.
— With files from Aman Parhar
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