Council ends teleconference meetings, will meet in-person for the foreseeable future

The May 25 executive committee meeting marked a new milestone in the City’s COVID-19 recovery plan, and Mayor Greg Dionne says it’s going to continue, barring major setbacks.

For the first time since April 6, city council did not meet via teleconference. Instead, Dionne and seven of the city’s eight city councillors were all in attendance at City Hall. That’s going to be the trend for the foreseeable future, after technological difficulties slowed down previous meetings.

“I loved it, and look at how we got debate today,” Dionne said when asked about the new setup. “Totally different than (over the phone). We argued on the phone. We got disconnected, and then we got mad at each other and we both look like fools.”

Putting an end to teleconference meetings meant there were frequently more than 10 people in the council chamber. The city clerk and city manager also attended the entire meeting, as did a contractor overseeing the tech side of things.

Council members were forced to sit in unfamiliar spots to ensure proper social distancing, and local media were only allowed to observe from the City Hall foyer. City employees were allowed to enter to make presentations. The speaker’s podium, which typically sits at the centre of the gallery, was directly in front of the door to take advantage of as much space as possible.

When asked about whether the city was allowed to have more than 10 people inside council chambers at one time, Dionne said there were no issues since everyone was properly spaced out. He said they’re treating council like a business, which can allow more than 10 customers inside provided they have enough space to keep at least six feet apart.

“That 10 person (cap) is for you and me barbecuing in my backyard, not work,” he explained. “I have 100 people in this building. I don’t have 10. I have 100.

“We are a workplace, and if you look at how we set up council, we are all six feet apart. We could actually have 17 people in there because of the six feet separation.”

There are no plans to allow up to 17 people inside the chamber. Dionne said they plan to stay on the safe side, and avoid having that many people in one place. Still, he argued that he and the seven councillors who attended felt safe.

Barring a change of direction from the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Dionne said the new meeting protocol was here to stay.

“It could still sit like that in a year from now,” he said. “Nobody knows. Everyone says, ‘well, until the (vaccine) is found, this is how it’s going to be.’ Well, now they don’t think they’ll even have a clue to start testing (a vaccine) until the fall, so I’ve prepared this council chamber for a year from now and that’s how it’s set up, and we’re safe. As you can tell, eight of us showed up thinking we’re safe.”

Ward 1 Coun. Charlene Miller was the lone city councillor who did not attend the last meeting. When contacted on Friday, Miller said she didn’t feel it was safe to begin meetings, and argued city council should defer to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and keep council meetings to under 10 people.

Miller works at Victoria Hospital, and because of that has to be very careful about who she comes in contact with. She asked for a number to dial in to the last meeting meeting, and was told teleconference meetings would no longer happen.

“I didn’t feel comfortable going into the chamber, because then there’s another person who comes into the room, which is number 13,” Miller said during an interview on Friday. “That is totally against what our province and the SHA is telling us.

“I was taken aback when I got the word that, no, I cannot have the teleconferencing number because we’re no longer doing it.”

Miller acknowledged that the teleconferencing system made it tough for council to conduct its business. She said there were frequent echoes over the phone lines, which made it hard to speak and difficult to hear.

Despite that, she’d like to see city council meetings move to a different platform, like Zoom, rather than return to in-person meetings.

Miller said she’s sent another email requesting that teleconference meetings be reinstated. She hasn’t heard back yet, and has yet to decide whether she’ll attend the next meeting on June 1 if that request gets denied.

“I really don’t want to waste PPE (personal protective equipment) going into a city council meeting, but it can’t be guaranteed how many people are going to be in that room at one time,” she said. “As a health care worker, I cannot disobey the rules. Those rules are put in place to protect our community and all of us.”

Workplaces are exempt from the restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings, according to the SHA’s general workplace guidelines. However, individuals are still expected to maintain at least two meters of distance. If that’s not possible, the SHA recommends individuals self-monitor their personal health, or work under the supervision of Infection, Prevention and Control or Occupational Health and Safety staff.

The guidelines also encourage workplaces to conduct business remotely, whenever possible, and alter or postpone operations if necessary.

Indoor and outdoor gatherings are currently capped at 10 people. That cap will expand to 15 for indoor gatherings and 30 for outdoor gatherings after hitting phase three of the Reopen Saskatchewan Plan. The target date for phase three is June 8.

The next Prince Albert city council meeting is scheduled for June 1 in the city council chamber. Start time is 5 p.m.

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