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Council reverses course on in-person meeting attendance policy

“If I can't have a crisis of conscience and change my mind, then maybe I'm not the councillor I should be, either,” said Coun. Wes Brodhead.
Coun. Wes Brodhead, pictured here during a council meeting earlier this year, changed his mind and voted against the policy he recently supported. JACK FARRELL/St. Albert Gazette

Less than a month after St. Albert city council voted to amend its policy governing how mayor and council can attend council meetings to say elected officials must “make every effort” to attend in person, council reversed course on June 4 by striking out that section of the policy.

The policy amendment was first put forward in March by Coun. Mike Killick, who, at the time, argued that in-person meeting attendance is the “best way to represent residents” and reduces the chances of miscommunication.

That amendment, made to council's Meeting Through Electronic Communications policy, was then approved in May with Killick, Mayor Cathy Heron, Coun. Wes Brodhead, and Coun. Ken MacKay in favour.

On June 4 council was asked to re-approve that amendment, as well as a host of other new grammatical and definition changes to the policy, but a motion put forward by Coun. Sheena Hughes amending the amendment to no longer include the “make every effort” section of the policy was approved with herself, Brodhead, Coun. Shelley Biermanski, and Coun. Natalie Joly in favour.

“This amendment has really actually bothered me quite a bit,” Hughes said. “When I look at why this came forward, we can say it was because I talked at the same time as [Coun. Ken MacKay] at the only time that I actually called in this year that I can remember, but the reality really is because [Coun. Natalie Joly] has been calling in for the majority of this term.”

“I think when we're trying to put forward policies about how we should be behaving or attending council meetings, the question should be, 'are the councillors who are calling in via Zoom for various reasons unable to do their job proficiently? Are they not able to participate fully in the meetings?' I can tell you that when I participate, or I see anyone else participate, including councillor Joly, they are participating to their best extent.”

Hughes then addressed the aspect of enforcing the policy, which, as most members of council acknowledged back in March, would be limited to council members voting to impose sanctions on each other as punishment for not attending in person without an accepted rationale.

“Are we actually prepared to say to people, ‘You did not attend when we think you should have attended and we are now going to take ramifications against it’?” Hughes asked the rest of council. “If we're not prepared to do that, we should not be putting in expectations in this wording.”

“This affects all of us actually, because it puts a hammer over your head if something were to happen, and it also puts an onus on you to, really, if someone were to challenge you, to now provide private details about your life as to why you were unable to attend.”

“I don't think that's fair for anybody,” Hughes said.

Joly, speaking in favour of Hughes' motion, thanked her for addressing what was felt as the unspoken reasoning behind Killick's motion — the fact she attends essentially all council meetings through Zoom — and said having the option for mayor and council to attend meetings virtually increases the accessibility of the role.

“I am thankful for the words of support,” she said, adding, through tears, that “one or two people on staff know why, and maybe I'll share at some point, [but] I attend everything in person except for these meetings.”

“I'm thankful that virtual attendance allows a diversity of people to contribute as members of council, including those with family commitments, work commitments, health limitations and any number of other lived experiences.”

Joly, who declined the Gazette's interview request after the vote, also said she was “heartbroken” by the message she said was sent to the community by Killick's in-person attendance policy statement.

“I am still heartbroken at the idea that we're implying to potential members of council, intentionally or possibly unintentionally, that the role should only be open to community members who are not part of a group that does not have diverse responsibilities or abilities.”

Brodhead, who was the deciding vote on Tuesday after he previously supported Killick's policy amendment, told the Gazette although he'd still prefer to see members of council attend meetings in person at every possible opportunity, he didn't want the policy change to be weaponized against councillors now, or in the future.

“The last thing you want to do is allow a statement like that to somehow be weaponized,” he said. “When I read the bylaw today, and heard arguments both from [Hughes] and [Joly], I said ‘the potential harm, is that outweighed by the purpose of what you're trying to fix here.’”

“That's why I changed my mind. I never like to flip flop, but on the other hand, if I can't have a crisis of conscience and change my mind then maybe I'm not the councillor I should be either.”

Killick disheartened

In an interview after the vote, Killick said the last-minute amendment to strike the policy change caught him by surprise, and he was disheartened to hear individual councillors felt singled out by his policy change.

“This was a very simple, practical policy change that would apply to all of us, not singling out anybody,” he said. “It was never intended to [single people out], it was just to reinforce that all of council should be in chambers whenever possible, with exceptions.”

“I'm discouraged, personally, that something as simple as attending in person was not supported, and I guess I'm a little personally disheartened that comments were made that this was a purely political decision.”

Killick also said he thought the concerns raised by Joly about required in-person meeting attendance potentially limiting who could serve on council were addressed in his policy amendment.

“If someone with a disability was to be elected to council, if the policy had gone through with the wording, we would accommodate that person's special requirements, just the same as if somebody got sick for three months or ended up in hospital,” he said. “I thought the wording that I had proposed said, 'yes, there are exceptions, and we can deal with those, but the main thing is to be in chambers.'”

“We would make those special exceptions.”

The remaining grammatical changes to the policy proposed by administration on June 4, including changing the policy's name to the “Meeting Through Electronic Means policy,” passed, with Killick and Coun. Shelley Biermanski opposed.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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