Two days before the World Health Organization officially declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and 10 days before the New Brunswick government declared a state of emergency, Sackville Town Council voted against allowing its members to attend meetings electronically.
“Let’s just say, for example, that there was a pandemic, hypothetically speaking, and somebody was quarantined, they would be able to participate with their phone,” Councillor Bill Evans told his council colleagues during their meeting on March 9th before public health authorities began warning people to stay home.
Council was debating whether to include electronic attendance in the bylaw that governs its procedures and it soon became clear that Evans was in the minority when he suggested allowing members, who couldn’t attend a meeting, to participate via speaker phone.
“Why would we go out of our way to not provide means for someone to do that if they wanted to? I just don’t get it,” Evans added.
He also pointed out that the provincial Local Governance Act enables councils to allow electronic attendance.
But Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken expressed strong opposition.
“I guess my sort of hard-line comment is, you’re elected to do a job and part of the job is being here for meetings,” he said. “If you can’t be [here], you can’t be. It’s not like we’re voting on world peace every time,” Aiken said as he argued that it would cost $6,000 to hook up a video conferencing system.
“If you’re away sick, I can’t see the desirability, I guess, of having your ill face at that height on that screen,” Aiken said, adding that electronic conferencing systems are often unreliable.
Councillors Shawn Mesheau, Michael Tower and Bruce Phinney also argued against allowing electronic attendance.
“If you’re elected, you should be here, not connected by electronic means,” Phinney said, while Mesheau argued that council had not fully considered it as a matter of policy.
“I don’t think we should be wasting any money,” Tower said. “If you’re not here, you’re not here, too bad,” he added.
When the vote was called, only Councillors Evans and Black supported allowing electronic attendance at council meetings while six other members of council voted against it.
Saturday parking restrictions lifted
At its March 9th meeting, council also voted to change the bylaw that governs downtown parking to eliminate the two-hour time limit on Saturdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
The change means that time limits will apply Monday to Friday, but not on weekends or statutory holidays.