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Surrey council contemplates moving to electronic meetings

This in reply to protesters calling on council to formally call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. Council deferred the matter to March 11
One of six protesters who addressed Surrey council on Monday, Feb. 26 demanding council call for a ceasefire in Gaza. (Screen shot)

Surrey city council is contemplating moving back to conducting electronic meetings like it did during the pandemic, although this time it’s in reply to disruptions from protesters demanding that council formally calls for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

On Feb. 26 the council deferred the matter to its next meeting, on Monday, March 11, after members expressed concern that under this method finance committee public hearings would also have to be held virtually as the city prepares its budget for 2024.

If passed, the city would have to give 21 days notice before the virtual regime could take effect. City solicitor Philip Huynh explained that the motion before council would put by default all remaining scheduled meetings into an electronic format. Council could “change the manner of any given meeting on a case-by-case basis or as council sees fit,” he said, “but this does flip the manner by default to electronic.

“The difficulty is the required notice, particularly for switching a public hearing because you do need 21 days in advance so a decision to switch back on any given case or to convert would require 21 days if there’s a public hearing that’s being converted.”

Coun. Doug Elford spoke in opposition, saying, “I need a little more clarity on this.

“I just don’t like the fact that it’s like right to the end of the year. It doesn’t give us the ability to adjust on the fly. Honestly, I believe particularly with finance committees we should be open to the public and speaking to the public on this.

“It’s challenging. It discourages people from participating.”

Coun. Pardeep Kooner also said the finance committee meetings shouldn’t be done electronically, “because that’s when the people get to tell us what they’re thinking.”

The last finance committee public hearing was held Jan. 29, on a Monday afternoon.

Staff indicated the public would also be able to participate electronically under such a mode. Coun. Mike Bose asked what’s stopping speakers from logging in electronically to disrupt virtual meetings. “I would argue that it’ll actually give cause for greater disruption of council meetings because you won’t have the ability to screen people,” he reasoned.

City Clerk Jennifer Ficocelli replied that when council meetings were held electronically during the pandemic more people participated in public hearings. “We actually worked very closely with each individual to ensure that they were able to use the technology and understood what the process would be for them. There was communication with every single person who was registered to speak.”

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According to City of Surrey policy, speakers at a public hearing must restrict their comments specifically to the development application being considered. The Palestinian protesters, however, since Nov. 20 have used this time to demand that council pass a motion calling for a ceasefire. It also happened Dec. 18, Jan. 15, Feb. 12 and Feb. 26.

Acting Mayor Linda Annis, filling in for Mayor Brenda Locke who was at the Big City Mayors’ Caucus in Ottawa, began the Feb. 26 council meeting with a preamble that alternative arrangements had been made to permit public hearing speakers to address council in a room at city hall other that council chambers. The meeting was live-streamed on Microsoft Teams.

“This is a result of escalating protests,” she said, leading to increased security and police presence “to safeguard our visitors and staff. Every council respects the right to protest, however the right to peacefully assemble does not extend to blockading lawful activities.”

On Monday’s meeting, speakers were admitted one at a time, under the watchful eye of a bylaw officer, to address council. During the first item on the public hearing agenda, four protesters addressed council with their cause and Annis promptly shut them down and called a three-minute recess in each case to prepare for the next speaker. During the second item, two more protester/speakers were also dismissed.

“Please keep your comments related to the bylaw being considered at the public hearing or your speaking will end,” Annis told the first speaker, to which he replied, “I just want to highlight the ridiculousness of what’s happening where city hall is paid for by taxpayers here and residents so we’re paying everyone’s salary here and we…”

Annis cut him off. “Speaker, your speaking opportunity has ended because your comments are not related to the bylaw at this public hearing. I’m going to call for a three minute recess, we’ll get ready for the next speaker,” she said.

After that, the next speaker up – also a protester – told council, “You have failed us,” and was similarly dismissed.

Another protester after him asked council, “What are we supposed to do? We have called, we have emailed, we have come in protest, we want you to call for a ceasefire. We want to help support people of Gaza. You have done nothing, how do we get a hold of you?”

He and Annis spoke over each other, and Annis dismissed him too. Similarly, other protesters were also dismissed. One called the meeting a “farce.”

During the debate later in the meeting, Annis said she feels safe and believes staff and council “are well taken care of,” but added, ”I think the issue that comes to play is the general public doesn’t feel safe or have a place to come to city hall to speak to us, that to me seems to be the issue.”

About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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