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Newmarket council returning to chambers with hybrid pilot

Newmarket expects to start hybrid meetings Oct. 25, allowing electronic and in-person participation
20200318 newmarket council social distancing
Newmarket council members are shown here March 18, 2020 practicing social distancing at an emergency meeting over COVID-19 at the municipal office. Kim Champion/NewmarketToday

The Town of Newmarket plans to pilot a hybrid meeting policy for at least one year, allowing members and the public to participate in person or remotely.

Council committee of the whole approved the measure Aug. 23, with a review of the policy expected in the first quarter of 2023. Staff plan to have the first hybrid meeting of council Oct. 25.

Council has met exclusively electronically since March 2020, when the pandemic began. Mayor John Taylor said allowing electronic participation has worked well to increase participation in meetings. 

“A hybrid approach won’t surprise anybody. I think it’s going to become more common in every walk of life,” Taylor said. “The direction, I think, in general, is a good one.”

The policy indicates remote and in-person participants should have equal access, which Lyons said the municipality has the technology to achieve. Meetings would also be held in accordance with public health guidelines, and apply to municipal boards and committees. The next municipal council will review the policy in 2023. 

Director of legislative services Lisa Lyons said staff wanted to keep the policy throughout 2022, given it is a municipal election year. She said there is a consideration that some people may choose to run based on the possibility of hybrid meetings and should have a part in that decision if elected.

“Trying to find that balance where we can have the best environment for everybody to participate in,” Lyons said.

Taylor raised a concern with possible abuse. He said the province waived a provision in the Municipal Act requiring councillors to attend at least every third meeting in-person or be expelled. He said that is still not back in force, but hybrid meetings could pose future problems. 

“What happens if a new member of council says in the first year of the term, ‘I’m going to live in Costa Rica,’” Taylor said. “And there’s no mechanism for us to do anything about that.”

Taylor said it would have to be a future consideration, depending on the direction of the province. He later added municipal election candidates should not assume the hybrid policy will last through its future review. 

Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh pushed for the policy to expire at the end of the current council term but received no support for the idea. He said in-person meetings are important and took issue with the policy continuing indefinitely. 

“I’m having a hard time seeing the necessity of remote meetings once we’re comfortable COVID’s passed and we’re more comfortable meeting in person," Vegh said. 

Councillor Bob Kwapis said he values the opportunity to provide input in meetings where he cannot come in person due to extenuating circumstances.

“Every corporation that I know of, many decisions are being made with people that are all over the globe,” Kwapis said.

Councillor Christina Bisanz said she did not want to put an end date, given the uncertain trajectory of the pandemic.

“It’s more prudent to say let’s treat it as a pilot, let’s have it in place, and then hopefully by next year, COVID won’t be a driving factor,” Bisanz said.

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Joseph Quigley

About the Author: Joseph Quigley

Joseph is the municipal reporter for NewmarketToday.
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