A new elections bylaw amendment outlining how Prince Albert residents can vote during the COVID pandemic failed to pass on Monday after one city councillor said the idea needs more public consultation.
The amendment passed first and second readings unanimously at Monday’s meeting, but Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp voted against third reading, delaying the final vote until the next regular council meeting on Aug. 24. Bylaws require unanimous consent to pass all three readings in one meeting.
Lennox-Zepp said she supports the changes, but believed the public needed more time to consider the proposal.
“Today was the first day it was before council. It hadn’t been at committee level. It was a new item, and I strongly value public feedback,” Lennox-Zepp said after the meeting. “I want to know from the public, are we getting things right or are we getting this wrong? It’s worthwhile for us to slow down and obtain that feedback before the vote is binding.”
Lennox-Zepp’s decision wasn’t a popular one with her colleagues on council. Mayor Greg Dionne said it was a frustrating development, especially since Lennox-Zepp moved to pass the first two readings, then declined to even vote in favour of it on the third. Ward 1 Coun. Charlene Miller, who seconded the first two readings, instead moved that the bylaw be given third and final reading.
Dionne said he was absolutely confident they already had enough public consultation, and has already directed city staff to start implementing the new bylaw as it is.
“When (the vote) goes 8-1, we move on,” he said in an interview after Monday’s meeting. “We know when it comes back it’s going to (pass), so we’ve instructed our staff to continue on with our plans because we have to get the plans in. The election is three months away, so we have to prepare to get to work.”
“The part that frustrates me is when it passes 8-1, well, who’s got the problem? The eight or the one?” he added.
Lennox-Zepp disagreed with the idea that city staff had to get to work as soon as possible. She said the four week postponement wasn’t a huge delay, and added that taking the time to get the bylaw right made a lot of sense.
“The public really care about these issues,” she said. “The public are intelligent. They care about the issues. That’s what I’ve learned about my now fourth year on council. The public are smart. If they are aware of the issue then they have good questions and they have good comments to help us make decisions.”
When asked if she would support creating a policy to have all new bylaws heard at an executive committee meeting before being brought to council, Lennox-Zepp said she would considered it. However, she also said there are occasions when council needs to pass a bylaw in one sitting.
“Sometimes something unexpected comes up and there’s a timeline—for example, budget contingencies on some of the infrastructure work we’re working on,” she explained. “That came to council tonight and it did not come to an executive committee meeting, and the public would probably say, yes, that one makes sense, but where you can have more public input, you should.”
The new Election Bylaw Amendment will ease restrictions on voting methods to help stop the spread of COVID-19. It includes six changes, most of which expand how voters can use mail-in ballots.
If approved, the amendment would increase the range of approved witnesses who can sign voter registration forms and Request for Mail-In Ballot declarations. It would also allow voters to send required forms and copies of identification by mail, fax or other electronic means to help cut down on personal contact, and expand the use of mail-in ballots to any voter unable to attend a polling location during advance polls or on election day.
The amendment also allows elected officials to visit a voter’s residence to accept mail-in ballot applications or check identities if the voter is at increased risk of COVID-19. Normally these visits are only provided to residents who have a physical disability or limited mobility.
The amendment also includes provisions for an anticipated increase in the use of mail-in ballots.
Advanced polls will be conducted by drive thru voting at the Prince Albert Exhibition Grounds on Oct. 28, Oct. 30-31, Nov. 2, and Nov. 4-5. Cities like Regina have already used drive thru voting in previous municipal elections.