MISA ONTARIO ELECTRONIC Council MEETINGS GUIDE
MISA Ontario, AMCTO, OMAA and AMO Launch of Electronic Council Meeting Guide and Resources for Municipalities
On March 19th, 2020 the Ontario Provincial Government made amendments to the Municipal Act, 2001 in response to COVID-19. Bill 187, the Municipal Emergency Act allows municipalities to update the procedural by-laws for meetings of municipal councils,
committees and local boards under sections 238 and 239 of the Municipal Act.
In response physical distancing requirements as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 pandemic response, municipalities can update procedural by-laws for council, committee,
and local board meetings in order maintain proceedings while not at physical meeting locations.
This webpage serves as a resource to provide the legislative context and practical considerations for the task of undertaking electronic council
meetings. This webpage has been developed in partnership with AMCTO, MISA Ontario, OMAA and AMO to help those needing it within the sector.
DOWNLOAD THE ELECTRONIC COUNCIL MEETINGS GUIDE
Previously Recorded Webinar
FAQ from Webinar
How are you addressing voting and considering some technology failures?
At Cambridge, we created a voting document noting that the Mayor or Chair of the meeting turns the vote over to the Clerk. The Clerk will then read the Councillor’s name out and the Councillor
can state their vote.
Nina: We prepared for a couple scenarios in Milton. The one we went with following the lead from Halton Region where everyone stated if they were in favour by raising their hand and again
by raising their hand if they opposed. In the event that video failed, we would do a recorded vote by a roll call. This would have made the meeting a bit longer but the video option worked well for us as it was clear
who was in favour.
Stephen: In Guelph, we already record our votes and Council is used to it as we do it for everything except for routine procedural adjournments and the like. Our process, because it
was a video conference, was for Councillors to physically raise their hand. We did, as well, contemplate a roll call by a Councillor so it would similar to having them all in the room for a recorded vote. That’s important
because these things need to be iterative and we need to move and develop each time we do these meetings. Make sure you have good and well thought out procedures. You want to have a protocol or process document to share
with councillors and staff so they understand how such meetings will work. In our case, the show of hands in video worked well. But in areas where there are broadband challenges, a teleconference may be the only option.
As a result, you need to frame your protocols around what works for your municipality.
Morgan: I would also commend Councils for keeping their composure. There are times where video
and audio can be choppy so Heads of Council and the Clerk have to have the composure to adapt to challenges as they come up, such as shifting to an audio vote if a Councillor drops off. The nature of rural and broadband
doesn’t blend well with this but in Middlesex County we’ve done well with this.
How are you addressing meetings under the Planning Act?
For the month of April, planning applications and meetings will be withheld. It will be re-assessed for May and we’re waiting on more information from the province.
Stephen: We have not held a statutory meeting under the Planning Act yet as we are in a “wait and see” mode in the current state. I do know some municipalities have been communicating with the
Ministry as this is something that should be addressed through legislation or, if possible, a regulation under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act or Planning Act. So there is advocacy there seeking for
permissive authority from the province to get clarity. If you’re thinking about holding such meetings, you need to think carefully and deliberately on the process. A routine example would be if someone saw a planning
application or file on a Council agenda, they did not register to delegate through any formal mechanism, they attend the meeting, and, in our case during the meeting, our Mayor calls out asking if anyone else would
like to speak to the application. It’s not uncommon for people to come forward to the podium and state their comments. In the current digital environment, we are going to have to find ways to facilitate that. I’ve seen
some municipalities use Zoom webinars where you can raise your hand through a function and be invited to speak. This can pose a broadband issue wherein multiple connections coming in can degrade the quality of the meeting.
It’s a matter of thinking it through, putting processes together and testing it until you’re comfortable with how it will play out in an actual meeting of Council.
Nina: We have
also suspended those meetings for April for the same reasons and discussions. Because we used the Zoom webinar function, we are having ongoing conversations to extend the feature to facilitate public delegations. With
this, people are allowed to call in via phone and use the raise your hand function. While we are nowhere near a point to coming to a decision on this, we are just waiting and seeing on what comes out form the province.
Morgan: Middlesex County as well has deferred the meetings pending response from the province on a new direction.
- Please note: following this webinar, the government passed Bill 189, which (among other items) temporarily suspends specified timelines for applications for development and land use planning. Municipalities that wish
to proceed with planning applications will be permitted to do so while allowing those that are not in the position to proceed to continue to deal with the COVID-19 emergency without fearing appeals for missing deadlines.
In the context of closed sessions, how are you ensuring councillors lines are secure and private? Is this a concern for you?
We gave direction to Council ahead of time to go over the obligations they have as a reminder and gave them recommendations for when closed meetings occur, such as being in a closed room, ensure
the room is closed off if there are others in the house, and so on.
Stephen: We had no closed sessions during our first electronic meeting but we would be looking to have a clear outline of protocols or best practices for members when they are connecting into
a closed meeting. Our Council Code of Conduct talks about an obligation on behalf of members to maintain a degree of confidentiality. It speaks more to a broad range of their interactions and the information they come
to have as an elected member. This should also apply to closed meetings as they have a duty to maintain confidentially under our Code. We’d look to that from a principled standpoint as to how councils should be acting
for remote meetings and the closed components of those meetings.
Nina: Part of the testing that we had done was to see the Councillors environment, see where they are calling from,
and confirm if it’s private, which we had no issues on. Similar to Stephen’s point, we also reiterated their obligation to confidentiality. An extra layer for us was that our councillors would normally get printed agendas
mailed to them via courier. So for us it was trying to figure out how to get the confidential items to them electronically as opposed to the regular paper process. We did a lot of encrypting documents with passwords
and used secret protective shared files that the town uses.
Can you address the procedures for going in and out of closed sessions?
Nina: To prepare for the closed meetings, we used zoom webinars ahead of time and all participants were divided as either panelists or attendees. Panelists were Councillors and attendees were the strategic
management team involved, in addition to our Solicitor. The remaining staff were also designated as attendees meaning that when it came time to close the open portion, it was easy to remove that whole section of meeting
participants. We practiced this with the Mayor before and communicated to the public that we would be going into closed and that the live streaming would be turned off with only Council and certain staff as being present
in the closed session. We noted that we would be coming back into the open meeting after the closed session was complete. When we had our IT staff confirm that we were in a closed session, the meeting went ahead. On the
back end we were ensuring that no one was trying to get into the meeting – we knew who was supposed to be in the meeting and constantly monitored that. When we came back out, we took a minute to ensure live streaming was
back on, we communicated to the public that we just came out of closed and that this was the second portion of the meeting. For our next meeting, we will be assigning passwords for councillors and staff required to be present
at the closed session.
There seems be new role in Council meetings to manage technology and the meeting flow. How are you addressing this new role to fill the technical capacity?
We found it to be an organic continuation of the behind the scenes stuff that we do in Council Chambers. Typically you have a Clerk ‘clerking’ the meeting and we continued to have that presence
in Town Hall. The rest of our team that would be setting up the live feed were doing so on the back end. It was enjoyable to work closely with our IT team to make this all happen. One of the most important things is to
have someone watching the meeting carefully so they can ensure the meeting occurs seamlessly, for example, mute if a Councillor has some background noise.
Stephen: It’s important to have a facilitator to carry out the functions that Nina was referring to. At Guelph we had the option for Councillors to call in before the meeting in a one hour window
to connect in and test. We kept an eye on the number of Councillors calling in and were prepared to ask Councillors to leave before quorum was formed. This gave our members the opportunity to try the technology out
beforehand. We also borrowed Cambridge’s protocol and process document that covered items relating to how you vote, how you get the attention from the chair, what to wear, and so on. You need to think about those nuances,
which helps with the flow of the overall meeting. This is critical in my opinion. Our second meeting will allow also for members to do this check-in again since it’s still fairly new. Until it’s a new normal, you need
to give people the opportunity to test it out
Danielle: I would echo that. If you can spend time as a host playing around with different features of your technology and figure out
what you want your Councils to have behind them and tools to use, it is helpful. Figuring out what works for you is key and reach out to your neighbours to see what works from them.
How are you managing speakers list?
We are using the raise hand feature, which is working really well. Initially I was hesitant because typically we have an order for speakers so I was worried for that. I created a tracking
list to for me to watch speakers and put them in order to speak using the raising hands feature. Given the times, Council is being incredibly patient and the raise hands feature is working incredibly well.
Nina: We used that feature as well because other than our Mayor, the Councillors were not in the Town Hall. It also shows the public who is raising their hand and waiting to speak. Overall,
we had a good experience.
Stephen: For our video conference, our members would physically raise their hand on the screen. Mayor Guthrie kept a list of speakers and would go to those members
to speak. The learning experiences of this is that its dynamic and things are changing. Everything doesn’t need to be perfect and be honest with your Council and give them all the information they need to set themselves
up for success. We all need to recognize that the first few electronic meetings are going to have some wrinkles to it and that’s okay. It’s just the nature of the beast until this becomes a more normal process.
How are you handling disclosures of interest in electronic meetings?
I had emailed everyone ahead of time asking them to complete the relevant forms if they had any declarations. Our Mayor then received this and called it out during the meeting.
Stephen: It’s a standing item on the Guelph agenda and is asked at the beginning of every Council meeting. We have a web form that allows members to submit their declarations in advance, during,
or after a meeting. On this, Clerks should start to think about what it means to not influence the matter in question. In an in-person open meeting and if a member were to declare an interest, legislation requires that
they not influence the vote and cannot vote on the matter. But what does influencing mean in this environment? In an in-person meeting, there’s a standard practice for members to get up and “leave the horseshoe” so
they aren’t around the same table as their elected colleagues. There are some ways to handle this for electronic meetings. Maybe in your process/protocol, you turn off their video feature so they cannot be seen during
this. It is something to think about and include in your protocols or processes.
What are the processes you’ve put in place in the event of technology failures?
Cambridge’s procedural document states that if members encounter service interruptions, the Chair will reset the meeting and attempt to re-connect with the Councillor. If 15 minutes have gone
by and (even after best efforts) connection has still not been regained, the meeting will resume.
Nina:The meeting was recorded locally and we wanted to make sure we had our own recording, which we are keeping as a transitory record. Similar to Danielle, we had established that if
we lost service and lost quorum we would reconvene the meeting at a backup time, which had already been noted in the provision. So while the meeting occurred at 4pm, we had stated that the meeting would occur at 7pm
if connections were lost.
How will this affect closed meeting investigations? For example, for a recording of a meeting, would it be appropriate to have a separate policy or amended closed session guidelines policy for electronic meetings.
We have a Closed Meeting Protocol, which serves as a tool for members and staff. For staff, it talks about recommendations and wording on things like rise and reports out of closed meetings and how
procedural votes can take place in closed sessions. It’s a multi-faceted document for staff and members but it would be worthwhile to think about what a closed electronic meeting means and the necessary protocols that need
to be put in place. The official record of the meeting should remain the meeting minutes. The Clerk has a statutory responsibility to take minutes. I come back to that being the official record. I like Nina’s idea of having
a recording of a closed session, but I don’t think that should necessarily be the permanent record. So, there’s a need to protocol and put practices around closed meetings.
Danielle: We keep audio recordings of our closed meetings and will be continuing with that practice, in addition to the meeting minutes of our closed meetings.
What are the gaps that you recognize beyond our current environment which you may have to address in the future?
I think it highlights regional broadband disparities and how broadband is critical infrastructure. Teleconferences are going to work where that is the best tool you may have available and you use the
resources that suit your community the best. While that’s important, I think we will see shifts in the importance we give to things like broadband connectivity and what it allows. It also enhances and builds up the level
of accountability that local governments have been well recognized as being a leader in.
Danielle: In the post covid-19 world, it makes me wonder what will happen with Council meetings, with the legislation being lifted to allow for electronic participation albeit under special
circumstances, it has provided insight to everyone on how it can be done, I think there may be a larger demand for this to continue in to some communities regardless of the emergency being over and there may be pressure
for legislative changes.
Nina: Myself, Danielle, and Stephen are lucky to be working in larger communities where we have IT infrastructure ready to support us but this isn’t the
case for most of the province. Prior to my job in Milton, I was working at the Township of Puslinch. It was a rural community with a population of just under 8,000 people with available broadband. At that time, we didn’t
have the ability to do live meetings but worked it out to record them and then post it on the website. I’m lucky in Milton to have a dedicated YouTube page for the Town and we can livestream from with the assistance
of our IT staff. Understanding that many communities, such as the one I use to work for, might just have to continue with the practices they have already been doing whereby they record and post later. I’m interested
to see where we go and where the legislation goes from here. Facilitating public delegations must also be considered for the future. It’s something that has to be done by the clerk and with processes set up where you
can control and ensure a certain level of participation.
Keeping in mind the five person gathering restrictions, would it better for meetings to still be held in their closest traditional manner as possible? For example, if plexiglass was installed in Council Chambers, would this not
allow for better action and deliberation than technology?
We will eventually get to the point where members will be comfortable with the digital format but there’s something to be said about being in-person and having a physical location to meet. For example,
people will still want to know there is a meeting happening at their local municipal office or City Hall and they can go at the set time indicated in the notice and watch and see their local democracy in action. There is
something incredibly important in this and I hope we do maintain that. The one thing I will say is that even though the guidelines suggest a five person limit in one room, I think about how each person physically gets to
that one room. Who have they come into contact with on the way? How are they getting there? I was on a similar webinar earlier and someone it was from the Town of Lakeshore who said some municipal staff members are living
separate from their spouses and partners in their homes because their partners work in the health care sector. So they want to keep family members that aren’t exposed separate from those that are. As a result, I find it
challenging to offer up the ability to come into the building and be limiting the amount of people physically present at a meeting (within reason). There still will need to be some staff present but there should be limitations.
Until we see public health guidelines change significantly, I think it is important to be as diligent as possible in adhering to public health directives.
Nina: I’d agree. For our town hall, we have limited access to a handful of staff that must be there and they take go in on rotations with safety measures in place. We made accommodations
for our Mayor, CAO, and Clerk to be there but we ensured it was an electronic meeting right away to prevent others from having to physically be present. Everyone took to it well and the meeting flowed, which continues
to give us hope. Those that were initially hesitant with the technology are now comfortable for this to go on. Limiting access to ensure safety has worked so far well. Interestingly, we have found that many of our Committees,
where it was not legislatively required to meet, already use electronic participation already, So many are easily adapting to this. Currently, we are exploring that if this goes long term to leverage platforms to continue
this with some of our committees.
Danielle: We are also looking to maintain the electronic meetings as long as we can in this situation. For those that must be physically present in the Council Chambers, we take further precautions. For
example, our Mayor wore a mask, we wash the tables down before and after, and so on. We are careful about everything we are touch in the room and ensuring there is no more than 3 people in the room. We are even looking
to do briefing meetings beforehand for members and look to maintain that.
Are you tracking your decisions regarding your selection of platforms and protocols to defend them later?
We are tracking this through our IT infrastructure.
Stephen: We are doing the same. For our purposes, there have been a lot of communication trails behind our decision making. Our IT team suggested WebEx because we already use other Cisco products
and hardware and there’s other documented rationale as to why that tool as used as opposed to others.
Nina: Our IT department had some great recommendations in terms of the tools
to use. When regular work from home started, our records manger created a document on records retention and the principle of records in the current COVID-19 environment. For example, the document included notes on what
permanent records need to be generated out of staff meetings, etc. This is in hopes that people realize that the discussions had in meetings have to still make their way into a permanent record.
As a follow up to the previous question and extending it from an IT perspective, the obligation comes from having to keep an eye on the municipality’s charter obligations to restrict only to the extent necessary and how to demonstrate
I believe this question came when I mentioned that perfection shouldn’t be the standard aimed for. Good can be all that is needed at this time and it’s important to have those protocols documented.
For example, when I think about the reasonableness for someone to participate, there should be a set protocol in place as to how to connect a member within reason. On the public participation side, if you’re calling out
to delegates and you’ve registered them, I think a similar process to facilitate discussion among Council should be in place and documented. So maybe you call out a delegate to include them in the electronic meeting and
if there’s no answer, then you go to the second delegate. Once that delegate is finished, maybe you try the first delegate again. If that documentation is included in protocols and made available online, the public can
see and understand how they will be brought into the meeting.
Danielle:At this time, my procedures are not public but that’s because I anticipate them to change very quickly in the next few meetings. I do agree that the protocols should be posted to the
public when possible.
Nina: As we work through the process and the delegation process changes, those protocols are important to be visible. We use social media and the Town’s website
to facilitate participation in the meeting. As we work through them it is be important to make them clear and available.
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