A Surrey city councillor is calling new changes governing public participation at council meetings “ridiculous” and “unsafe” and says they require “sober second thought.”
She’s not alone.
Coun. Linda Annis noted that new changes “just announced” cancel public participation by phone, require in-person attendance in chambers and don’t require a vaccination check.
“By taking away the telephone option and reducing the chamber’s capacity by half, public participation is going to be cut dramatically,” Annis said. “At the same time, there is no requirement to be vaccinated and no vaccine check. When you add all this together, Doug McCallum is really telling people they’re not welcome at council.”
Coun. Laurie Guerra accused Annis of playing politics “and trying to create more division with the city,” recalling it wasn’t long ago that Annis had criticized the city for not re-opening recreation centres and swimming pools when the city was under strict orders from B.C.’s public health officer not to.
“She should make up her mind,” Guerra said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Annis noted that COVID-19 remains a serious concern and a “simple check at the door” for a vaccination card would help Surrey residents feel more confident that city hall is looking out for their health.
Instead, she said, the new rules will deter the public from attending council meetings and public hearings. On Monday, members of the public spoke to only one of the nine development applications that came before council for a public hearing, which all told wrapped up in an untypically short 34 minutes.
“The mayor is telling people they can only participate in person, but we’re taking no real precautions to keep people safe and there’s no telephone participation if you’re concerned and want to stay home,” Annis said. “For instance, the telephone option ensured everyone could have a voice at council. So, do people stay away just to be safe, or do they come to council and risk their health? Clearly we need to rethink this approach and put our citizens first. If a vaccine card is required at restaurants and hockey games then why should we be taking fewer precautions at city hall?”
Meantime, since council returned from its summer break its members have been convening in chambers separated by plexiglass barriers.
Guerra maintains Surrey has set up the “strictest protocols to run public hearings in person” and is doing so “only in response to pushback from the community to do so.”
On Monday night Coun. Brenda Locke presented a notice of motion, to be voted on at council’s next meeting, for staff to allow a “limited number of members of the public to access public hearings by audio only.”
“The previous interface we had online, there is benefit to that,” she said.
Meantime, Surrey RCMP were called to city hall by security on Monday night.
“We were called, they said somebody was going to storm the building,” Const. Sarbjit Sangha said.
She said police spoke with an elderly woman who “had no intention of doing any such thing, and she was doing her protest peacefully so there were no issues.”
“Whatever was alleged wasn’t true so no issues, no arrests.”
Fleetwood resident Richard Landale, an avid council watcher who speaks to most applications before council at public hearings, says that without the ability to call in by telephone he is effectively “disenfranchised.”
“My family’s health, welfare and safety must come first,” the senior citizen told council in a letter.
Landale said he cannot attend in person because of COVID-19 conditions “that plague our city, and the vulnerability of exposure to any person with COVID-19 or an ‘A’ Positive person who does not know it.” He lost his brother David to COVID-19 in April 2020, he said.
Deb Jack, president of Surrey Environmental Partners, also calls in regularly in an effort to hold council accountable for the trees that are lost to development and the effect this has on our collective health.
“I’m going to be severely constrained,” the senior citizen said of these new rules. “And I do not understand why.”
“The world is facing, along with a climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis,” Jack noted. “Why do we have the certificate/passport for them not to be used?”
“The technology is available. The circumstances that that technology was developed for, being specific to the city council chambers, was because of this disease. There’s no reason yet not to be using it – it works out perfectly well,” Jack insists. “There simply is no reason that I can think of that you wouldn’t have the people who are in chambers speak to an issue first and then take the people on the telephone. And I don’t speak for myself, I speak for all of the partner groups and I speak for all of the citizens in the community who are concerned about conservation of the living environment, period. And I’m going to be deprived of that.”
The city, Jack reiterated, has the technology to ensure that the maximum number of Surrey residents “can exercise their civic rights to participate in decision making about their own community.”
Guerra noted that while council chambers is running at only half capacity for space city staff has opened the atrium for overflow seating.
“It takes taxpayer dollars to run a public hearing that abides by public safety protocols and then try to have public participation by the phone as well,” she told the Now-Leader. “The whole reason to going back to public hearings in person is to increase face to face public participation and I believe our city is doing it in the safest way possible.”
As for asking for vaccination passports, she added, the provincial government determines “who should and shouldn’t be required to show them.
“I don’t believe we are even permitted to ask if all the councillors have been vaccinated,” she added.
Guerra noted that most cities in Metro Vancouver are open to the public for public hearings, and if they are holding public hearings only virtually at this point they would have had to update their procedure bylaw to allow for it.
“I do not care what other cities are doing,” Jack rejoined.