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Surrey council looking at reinstating virtual meetings

Coun. Laurie Guerra called it ‘a very wise option’
Surrey city council reconvened on June 1. (Screen shot)

Surrey city council is toying with the idea of once again conducting its meetings virtually following the breakdown of its Monday, May 30 meeting where Mayor Doug McCallum called a recess after being heckled by audience members and then the meeting was adjourned to Wednesday, June 1.

On Wednesday, council sat alone in council chambers, with staff permitting entry to people one-by-one who wished to address council on specific applications at the public hearing. A large crowd sat in the atrium outside chambers, with many in the audience wearing white T-Shirts bearing the message “Welcome Surrey Police Service.”

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, under other business, McCallum presented a proposal to “not necessarily bring back yet,” but to look at bringing back “virtual electronic meetings.”

Coun. Laurie Guerra called it “a very wise option.”

“This isn’t coming out of thin air, this is coming due to the shenanigans that happened in here on Monday night,” she said. “We were at the virtual meetings due to safety reasons from COVID and this provides the flexibility to go back to it for the same safety reasons for our staff – I think we have a duty to protect our staff that are out here and the members of the chamber who are here for valid reasons to speak to public hearings, and ourselves.

“So I think it’s a really wise option and I think it’s good that we get the ball in motion and get all the details worked out and then we can have that option, that flexible option,” Guerra said.

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McCallum told his fellow council members he thinks it’s “a least a good option to have for council,” noting that the two largest local governing boards are still conducting their meetings virtually.

The TransLink board will continue to conduct its meetings virtually at least until the end of December, he said. “The Metro board, also a very big board with most mayors and some councillors on it is also on full virtual, although they do allow some people to come into the chambers if they would like, but it’s basically on full virtual until the end of the year, and again that’s for a number of safety reasons.”

McCallum added that under the Community Charter a council may adopt a bylaw authorizing council meetings to be held electronically “as council determines appropriate.” Council voted for city staff to bring proposed amendments to the Council Procedure Bylaw to council’s next meeting to consider.

“This is just to bring it forward,” McCallum said. “Council will still have a decision whether they want to go with it, at the next council meeting.”

Surrey solicitor Philip Huynh said council may pass up to three readings – or not – at the next council meeting, “but then there is a requirement then to provide public notice of council’s intent to adopt the bylaw before council goes through with adopting the bylaw in a subsequent meeting.”

Coun. Steven Pettigrew noted the proposed electronic meeting format “seems very similar” to how council meetings were conducted earlier in the pandemic. Huynh replied that earlier in the pandemic the provincial government issued orders to allow councils to conduct their meetings electronically but those orders are no longer in effect.

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“Instead, the Province has amended the Community Charter to allow municipalities to decide to continue or adopt a practice of electronic meetings by virtue of amending their procedure bylaw,” Huynh said.

Asked if the council meetings would be a hybrid of phone-in and in-person, Huynh replied, “I think it’s one or the other.”

“It’s a supplement to council’s abilities to go either in person or electronic on a given meeting.”

There are six more regular council meetings scheduled before the Oct. 15 civic election, with the next on June 13 and the last on Oct. 3.

As for the now infamous May 30 meeting, Ivan Scott, of Keep the RCMP in Surrey, said close to 100 members of his group were in council chambers.

“At no point did any of the KTRIS group leave their chairs while McCallum was in attendance,” Scott said, and “did not ever once threaten McCallum and his SSC with any physical harm whatsoever, or attempt to enter the councillors’ area from the public area.

“Neither was anybody foul-mouthed towards McCallum,” Scott added. “His SSC councillors had absolutely no justification to say that they feared for their safety from the SSC group.

“The idea that the two SSC female councillors had to be escorted to their cars due to their safety fears from KTRIS people is ludicrous and laughable in the extreme,” he charged.

Meantime, Coun. Linda Annis of Surrey First says “things definitely have to change at city hall” before the city’s reputation is damaged further. Moving council’s regular Monday meeting to Wednesday, she said, cost thousands of tax dollars.

As for the prospect of Surrey council once again conducting its meetings virtually, Annis said, “I voted against that.

“This paints a very sad picture of the city right now. Excluding the city’s taxpayers from speaking in person at public meetings is absolutely the wrong way to treat our residents and our democracy,” Annis said.

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

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