All those missed conversations at the water cooler or in the hallways at the Regional District of North Okanagan office are beginning to add up, and it’s causing communication problems at the local government level.
Coldstream Mayor Jim Garlick spoke about the adverse effects he’s noticed as a result of virtual sessions at last week’s RDNO advisory committee meeting, which like all such meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, was held over Zoom.
Garlick told the Morning Star he has no qualms with the use of virtual meetings to provide a safe environment for staff during the pandemic. In his role with the District of Coldstream, he’s been pleased with the use of plexiglass dividers between staff members, as well as cameras put in place to connect council with the public.
“It’s not the best but at least we are together, and I think that’s been beneficial,” he said.
But there are other settings where Garlick feels local governance is being hampered by virtual formats, and where adding some minor adjustments to in-person meetings would suffice to provide a safe environment.
“At the regional district, by contrast, we have been working virtually and so we have the agendas, we deal with each of the items and we are offered opportunities to ask questions,” Garlick said. “But it’s more stilted, because it’s your time to speak and then you’re off. It’s very different.”
“And then at the end of the meeting everybody walks away and you don’t see anyone or have a chance to talk.”
These missed side-chats can appear insignificant on their own, but now that they have accumulated over the course of a year or so, governing bodies are now running a large deficit in this sort of communication.
“It’s a small item each time but it builds up, it starts to become obvious just in what’s happening, what’s being carried out.”
Garlick says the issue is evident when he looks at the list of major projects the RDNO has lined up.
“There’s holes in what we know about it and what’s happening,” he said.
At the April 14 advisory committee meeting, Garlick proposed a motion to look at returning to in-person meetings with virtual access, which passed unanimously.
“We need to look at where it’s appropriate,” he said. “I’m not dissing Zoom, it’s great that we have it, but we also need to look at the benefits of the in-person meetings and see what we have been neglecting or missing out on.”
Garlick isn’t alone. On Friday (April 16) Enderby Mayor Greg McCune said he and his council have had similar experiences.
“Zooms have lost their lustre. It’s not as smooth as it once was.”
Under the current provincial health order on gatherings and events, municipal meetings are to be held virtually “as much as possible.”
But with an RDNO cohort of just seven members, Garlick says it wouldn’t be too difficult to space out six members in a room, with the virtual format already set up to accommodate the extra person and other staff members as needed.
“And the province has provided us with money to do these things (through) the COVID grants,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate that we do that, not only for including the public but just for being able to carry on business in a better manner.”