They vary in how much they’ve liked virtual meetings, but the City of Greater Sudbury’s elected officials appear supportive of them continuing in some form in a post-pandemic world.
“I love them,” Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan said. “It’s one of those things that’s going to come out of the pandemic we’ll probably think we should have done a long time ago.”
Both in-person and virtual meetings have their merits and pitfalls, Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc said, and both have successfully served their purpose.
“Both options are great,” he said, adding that if he had his druthers he’d prefer in-person because he misses the nuances associated with debating issues with people who are in the same room.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the province amended The Municipal Act on March 19 to allow for electronic participation in meetings during emergency situations.
Greater Sudbury quickly followed by amending their procedure bylaw and having the IT department figure out pertinent technical aspects in time for the next city council meeting.
They’ve been meeting virtually ever since.
“I think there was a learning curve that everyone’s kind of got now as the process goes, allowing extra time to answer questions and allow that mute button to unclick,” Ward 6 Coun. René Lapierre said.
“I’m happy we were able to do that and keep everyone safe and distanced so we didn’t spread the virus or anything like that.”
Staff and council “shifted pretty quickly” toward virtual meetings, Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh said, adding that although the format has worked there have been downsides.
A virtual setting strips away much of the interpersonal relationships she said are integral to any organization. Casual conversations before and after meetings, including personal catch-ups, aren’t conducive in a virtual setting
Further, she said that when chairing meetings the ability to lean over and ask the city clerk, who carries “encyclopedic” knowledge of proper procedures, questions can prove helpful.
Although members of the public have been allowed to watch livestreams of city council meetings online, as they have been able to even before the pandemic, McIntosh said a lot is lost when people aren’t able to show up in person and fill out the public gallery.
“When they really care about something, they show up, and it’s really impactful when they show up,” she said, adding that sometimes city council isn’t aware of quite how strongly a group of people feel about something until they’ve seen them gather at Tom Davies Square.
The virtual setting has also changed how voting takes place during meetings, Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti said, noting that they currently vote one at a time, which he’s concerned might affect some councillors’ decisions — particularly those at the end of the line.
On the plus side, virtual meetings have made attending meetings much easier.
“You can meet anywhere,” Kirwan said, adding that even when he’s been out of town for things such as conferences he has still been able to attend council meetings during the pandemic.
COVID-19 aside, he said that illness in general might keep councillors away from meetings if the virtual attendance option weren’t available.
“There are many times you may not feel up to going to a meeting at Tom Davies Square, but if you’re at home you can take an hour, hour and a half out of your day and be at the meeting.”
On this front, McIntosh said that on one occasion before the pandemic she injured her back and was unable to attend a meeting. Instead, she laid in bed and watched the meeting take place on a screen.
Under today’s rules, she could have participated from bed.
She and other councillors also noted the virtual option will prove helpful during winter storms, particularly among those whose trip to council chambers is particularly long.
In addition to public meetings, the various meetings mayor and council have with staff throughout the workweek have also become more accessible by using Microsoft Teams.
“In some ways, it’s increased productivity for the day-to-day meetings,” Ward 4 Coun. Geoff McCausland said. “It’s really conducive to making more agile work plans across the organization.”
The biggest challenge with this, he added, is that with staff linked in at any time of the day or night they have to learn how to unplug and stop working.
“So many city staff felt — and I think a lot of people across industries — they had to prove that they were still working the same way they were at the office,” he said. “We need to be able to find a healthy balance moving forward.
“I think we just need to be open to work style innovations … and we’re going to see that change dramatically in the next couple years — the next couple months, really.”
The councillors contacted for this story were unanimous in wanting a hybrid of virtual and in-person council meetings to be established that would bring together the best of both worlds when the pandemic has finally fizzled out.
The Municipal Act amendment was a special provision for emergency situations, but Ward 7 Coun. Mike Jakubo said it’s likely the city will advocate for the province to extend it.
For some, the desire to gather together in council chambers remains strong.
“I realize with the Delta variant there’s still concern out there, I can appreciate that, but at the same token when we’re trying to conduct council business it’s a little disheartening to try and conduct it in this kind of format,” Signoretti said of virtual meetings, adding that he wants to see a blended meeting format sooner rather than later.
“The public is looking for leadership in the community and we see colleges and universities, their staff are returning back to work in a social setting, and as leaders in the city I feel that we need to show that sort of leadership setting as well.”
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.