Strathcona Regional District is moving its meetings online due to COVID-19, but it is not allowing the public to attend, nor will it be making the meetings available to the public at a later date.

The district is citing technological limitations and a provincial emergency order issued during the COVID-19 crisis as the reasons for not making the meetings public.

However, other regional districts and provincial ministries are using commonly available technology to hold online meetings and make them accessible to the public.

David Leitch, SRD chief administrative officer, said today's board meeting will take place using Microsoft Teams, a video, audio and chat collaboration platform used in many offices.

The public and media can’t attend the online meeting, as the SRD does not have the technology available to allow it, said Leitch. As well, the SRD won’t make any video or audio recordings of the meeting available to the public afterwards.

The SRD is allowed to exclude the public from the meeting based on a provincial emergency ministerial order issued March 26 in response to COVID-19, said Leitch.

“This (amendment) allows us to conduct meetings without the public’s participation,” he said.

There are oodles of local governments out there that won’t, and don’t, have the ability to broadcast their meetings,” Leitch added, noting such technologies are expensive.

“We’re not trying to avoid transparency, we don’t have the technology to broadcast, and we’re not the only ones.”

The provincial order allows local governments to temporarily hold meetings without the public physically present, and to conduct meetings online during the crisis — two measures not permitted to local governments or boards previous to the pandemic.

“If we have the capacity to allow the public to be present, we darn well should be doing it, and I am assuming it will be part of the discussion," Noba Anderson, Cortes Island director on Strathcona Regional District's board meetings moving online.

But B.C.'s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing suggested local governments and boards work to facilitate public attendance at electronic meetings in an email Tuesday.

“While the order allows meeting to be held without the public physically present, we encourage local governments to provide online streaming of council and board meetings that includes opportunities for 'real-time' questions and answers to encourage public engagement and allow for media attendance,” the email said.

“Local governments can also keep their community informed by providing critical information about discussion, debate, and decisions on their website and posting draft minutes in a timely manner.”

The ministry also recommends boards allow remote presentations from delegations, and provide opportunities for written submissions.

“We are trying our best within our mandate to continue with the business of the board in the most transparent ways we have available to us,” SRD board chair Michele Babchuk said in an email Tuesday.

Michele Babchuk, SRD board chair, said the district is continuing with its business in the most transparent ways it has available. Photo: SRD

Neighbouring Comox Valley Regional District is using Zoom, a popular web conference app, to hold district meetings with directors during COVID-19.

Following the meeting, the CVRD posts a recording to YouTube with links to the district’s website for the public to view, said Jake Martens, CRVD manager of legislative services.

Two CVRD meetings, including a regional board meeting, have taken place using Zoom since the COVID-19 crisis started, said Martens.

Subscribing to Zoom is relatively economical, said Martens, adding the format is helpful to public viewers because they can see which director is speaking during the meeting.

The district is aware there were some security concerns about using Zoom, but it didn’t receive any guidance from the province not to use it, Martens said.

“We took a few measures recommended by our IT department and haven’t experienced any problems so far,” he said.

The CVRD also expects to have live streaming of public meetings, broadcast technology that was under development previous to the COVID-19 crisis, ready to go next week, he said.

The SRD also has plans to establish broadcasts and hopes to get the technology working within the next couple of months, said Leitch.

The minutes of upcoming SRD meetings will be posted to the district’s website after the meeting occurs, he added.

However, Zoom, which allows public viewing and the recording of a meeting, won’t be used because of security concerns and the inability to moderate public participation, Leitch said.

Zoom has become ubiquitous for meetings during the COVID-19 crisis, but it has come under scrutiny for security and privacy flaws, including Zoom-booming, instances where online hijackers take over meetings and post pornographic images or utter profanities.

However, B.C.'s Ministry of Education has licensed the Zoom platform to allow teachers to provide virtual learning to K-12 students during the pandemic after making some security moderations.

John Biehler, a technology expert with GetConnected, said Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and Google Meet are all technologies readily available for organizations to conduct and record online meetings.

However, administrating public online meetings with technologies like Zoom or Microsoft Teams can be unwieldy for organizations unfamiliar with the platforms.

John Biehler, a technology expert with GetConnected, said there is a range of technologies readily available to conduct or record meetings online. Photo: courtesy of GetConnected

“It becomes, potentially, a fairly arduous administrative task to manage a meeting of, say, 10 participants and potentially hundreds of viewers,” Biehler said.

“It might be easier for jurisdictions to choose to record it and just broadcast it after the fact, so it’s a view-only thing, as opposed to having people come into the meeting and assigning certain privileges to them.”

Posting a public meeting to a website or to social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, has other advantages, he said.

“Before, if people wanted to watch a meeting, they would have to go to the chambers. Now they can watch from their couch on laptop if they wanted to,” Biehler said.

Microsoft Teams might be a preferable choice for online meetings involving confidential information or in-camera discussions, he noted.

However, Zoom has taken steps to make changes to address recent security concerns, Biehler said.

“Generally, for public meetings, it should be fine,” he said.

The SRD board is currently learning the technology for how to conduct board business online, Noba Anderson, regional director for Cortes Island, said Tuesday morning.

But Anderson hoped the public would have access to board meetings, if not at the first online meeting today, at least by the next scheduled meeting on April 29.

“If we have the capacity to allow the public to be present, we darn well should be doing it, and I am assuming it will be part of the discussion," said Anderson.

“This is likely our new normal for many months, and if an applicant has to speak, there has to be a mechanism for that. There has to be.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative

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