A couple of Surrey city councillors expressed concern about the city once again holding its regular council and finance committee meetings virtually rather than in-person as budget discussions loom and the duration of this decision remains unknown.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum read a motion, which was unanimously passed, to move council and finance committee meetings back to virtual from in-person on account of the significant spike in COVID-19 cases, “while ensuring to meet the principles of openness, transparency, accessibility and accountability” by continuing to livestream these meetings and permitting members of the public to participate by phoning in or by written comments.
This was at a special regular council meeting late Wednesday afternoon.
Councillor Steven Pettigrew said “in times past, it’s been difficult for members of the public to express themselves and for council to express themselves because of the tendency to be cut off at a quite easy press of the button.
“So I’m concerned that people like councillors and members of the public will not have a chance to be able to speak, that that button might be a little bit too soon, so this is my main concern if we move back into this virtual arena, people will not be allowed to address,” he said. “That’s my main concern, just the silencing of dissension.
“I’m really, really uneasy about going back to virtual meetings and I’m not confident,” Pettigrew said. “It’s so easy just to hit the button and mute somebody, that’s my overriding concern about going back into this.
“I’d like to have some reassurances from the chair that if we do go with this, that these things will not revert back to the way things were before,” he added. “Especially it’s coming up with the budget. Last year’s budget meeting was almost a riot, and this budget coming up, if we go virtual, it’ll eliminate that process but there will be a lot of very emotional people and angry people and maybe some happy people, and we need to be able to allow those people to be able to speak, and to say what they have to say.”
McCallum thanked Pettigrew for his comments.
City manager Vincent Lalonde told council the City of Vancouver never went back to fully public from virtual and the majority of cities in the Lower Mainland have “oscillated ” between the two. Some have been “hybrid” and some have been fully open but limiting the number of people allowed in chambers. “All cities are reassessing this.”
“I’d like to point out that previously when we were under this format of virtual, the max amount of B.C. cases was 717,” Lalonde said. “We’re now sitting at over 6,000 cases and we all know the epicentre unfortunately is Surrey.”
Councillor Jack Hundial asked if the move back into exclusively virtual meetings would be re-assessed every month or continue on until the end of council’s term. “The wording around the motion itself, it seems to be there’s no end on it,” he noted.
McCallum said the “intent” is that it would continue “until such time council feels that we can return to in-person meetings.”
“Certainly it won’t be until the end of the pandemic?” Hundial asked.
McCallum, whose Safe Surrey Coalition slate controls council with five of nine seats, replied, “That’s up to council to make that decision.”
Councillor Allison Patton said the main reason she supported the motion was to protect staff. “I think it’s the right move, at the right time,” she said.
Meantime, Lalonde said the City of Surrey has “upped our game as far as our facilities and our staff but what remains is there’s a lot of cases out in the public and so we think we could be better leveraged by Fraser Health.”
He said he’s meeting on Friday with Fraser Health toward better coordinating their responses to the pandemic. “I think the city continues and has been very proactive but right now we need more data, and more liaison I would say, in order to pinpoint our interventions,” he said.