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EDITORIAL: Councillors need face time, not FaceTime

City of St. Albert Council once again finds itself in the awkward position of regulating its own behaviour. Next week, council will be debating a motion from Coun.

City of St. Albert Council once again finds itself in the awkward position of regulating its own behaviour. 

Next week, council will be debating a motion from Coun. Mike Killick to amend its Meeting Through Electronic Communications policy, adding a section that says councillors “shall make every effort to attend council meetings in person”, using electronic options only in “unforeseen, extenuating, or extraordinary circumstances.” 

As Killick said when putting the notice of motion forward back in March, he thinks in-person meeting attendance is the best way to represent residents and reduces the chances of miscommunication. 

Coun. Natalie Joly, who would be the most directly affected by this policy as the most frequent Zoomer on council, was not surprisingly nonplussed by the motion when Killick put it on the table. She says Zoom attendance makes it more possible for her to attend council meetings from her job in Edmonton, highlighting the fact that she is the only councillor with outside employment. 

“I also have to be really cautious about making sure that I'm not places where I'm getting sick, and that's not always possible when you're in council chambers because we don't have any rules about coming to work sick,” she added in a Gazette story.  

She had more to say in a LinkedIn post after the fact, highlighting her in-person attendance at committees such as the Youth Youth Advisory Committee, Seniors Advisory Committee, and Chamber of Commerce events.  

We’re not convinced that council chambers represent a greater disease vector than councillors’ other duties (council cooties?). But leave that aside. 

This policy is likely unenforceable, as Killick and Joly have both said. While we agree with that assessment, we think it still sends the right message. We elect a council to represent the city as a whole, not individual representatives from wards. We can and should expect its members to collaborate as they make their decisions. 

And effective collaboration is primarily a face-to-face endeavour. According to recent scientific research in the journal Imagining Neuroscience, looking at a person’s face on a computer screen leads to lower levels of certain brain activities and social arousal compared to seeing them in person. 

And another study from MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab showed that the most valuable type of communication is done in-person, and that 35 percent of the variation in a team’s performance in its study came from the number of times team members spoke face-to-face. 

Zoom has made it possible for our world to stay connected, but when it comes to the business of our city, it should be the exception and not the norm. 

We need our councillors to have real face time, not to be on FaceTime. 

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