Controversy over in-person North Stormont Council meeting scheduled tonight

North Stormont Township headquarters in Berwick. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

BERWICK — A local municipal councillor is balking at having to meet in person with her colleagues at a scheduled closed session in North Stormont Township this evening.

Councillor Roxane Villeneuve questions the legality and optics of being compelled to physically attend the Berwick council chambers for the 6:30 p.m. session.

North Stormont Mayor Jim Wert (left) and CAO Craig Calder. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

“My biggest concern … is that council is meeting face-to-face … in the chamber room at the municipal building, when recent provincial legislation laws gives municipalities the authority to do otherwise,”  Villeneuve tells NVN. The stay home message from medical health officials is ignored, and in my opinion, it’s wrong and illegal,” the councillor adds.

The last two regular meetings of North Stormont Council have occurred virtually as combined video and teleconference affairs — with the public able to listen in via telephone. Tonight’s meeting, however, will be the first “in-camera” event — intended to discuss sensitive matters not for public consumption — since the provincial state of emergency declaration in March over the COVID-19 crisis.

And after a couple of contentious debates on the matter, council voted 3-2 Tuesday night against conducting this evening’s session electronically, compelling their first physical meeting in weeks. Councillors Villeneuve and Steve Densham voted in favour of the motion, with Mayor Jim Wert, Deputy Mayor Frank Landry and Councillor Randy Douglas opposing virtual means for tonight’s in-camera confab.

Councillor Steve Densham and Councillor Roxane Villeneuve. Zandbergen photos, Nation Valley News

Villeneuve says she’s been told the meeting will proceed without her because council will have quorum with one person absent. She’s been denied a request to participate offsite by telephone even if the others do turn up in the flesh.

The councillor hasn’t said if she has ruled out showing up at tonight’s meeting, where CAO Craig Calder has promised physical distancing and other measures will be observed on the premises — including extra cleaning of the council chambers and having participants wearing masks and gloves.

But Villeneuve bitterly opposed the idea at Tuesday night’s teleconference meeting, complaining she couldn’t visit her family at Easter and yet must show up in person to take part in the closed session.

Central to the controversy is distrust. Deputy Mayor Landry expressed concern at both recent regular meetings about the potential for someone to record or share the in-camera session, should it occur electronically.  Villeneuve — who was chastised in January by the township’s integrity commissioner for publicly sharing a piece of information she would have known from closed session — described Landry’s concern as “insulting.”

Meanwhile, the SD&G OPP has already investigated a complaint about tonight’s planned meeting in Berwick, confirms Const. Jim Blanchett, who says the event does not break the law.

“The five-person rule applies to social gatherings, it doesn’t apply to running a government business. It’s the same as the OPP detachment,” says Blanchett. “I might have more than five people in the building … the running of a municipality or council business is covered, so there’s no issues of any kind with them.”

The officer also points out that council must agree unanimously to choose the virtual option. “There wasn’t that unanimous consent, so this is the only way they can conduct their business,” said Blanchett, citing the Municipal Act and acknowledging that he had been in contact with Calder on the subject today.

A Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokesperson also tells NVN it’s up to the discretion of council on whether to choose to conduct a meeting electronically during a time of emergency.

Says Lee Alderson in an April 2 email:

The health and safety of the people of Ontario is our number one priority.

 Our changes to the Municipal Act allow that, during periods when the Premier of Ontario, Cabinet, or a Head of Council declares an emergency under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, members of municipal councils, committees and certain local boards can choose to:

•  Participate electronically in closed meetings

•  Count towards quorum for making decisions when participating electronically in both open and closed meetings.

 These powers are discretionary, and it is up to municipalities and their local boards to decide whether to use them and how to implement them.

Julie O’Driscoll, Director of Communications for the Office of the Premier of Ontario, offered the same statement to NVN today, adding: “Should a council choose to conduct an in-person meeting, they should follow the best advice of the Chief Medical Officer to ensure the meeting is conducted as safely as possible.”

Councillor Steve Densham — the other council member to vote in favour of an electronic meeting for tonight — put his support down to a comfort level with the technology. “I spent most of the latter half of my career on teleconference calls, often with executives dealing with sensitive topics, so perhaps I am just more comfortable in general,” offers Densham.

“In instances like these there are risks either way. I simply leaned on the side of accepting a conference call this time.”

Meanwhile, in South Dundas, Mayor Steven Byvelds says his council will hold its in-camera meetings electronically — though it has yet to have a closed session since the start of the state of emergency. Regular South Dundas Council meetings have otherwise been happening online as a Facebook live stream.

“The plan will be to stop recording, take a break and it will go offline,” says Byvelds of the plan for closed sessions. “Our host will ensure no others are in the meeting.  Councillors will need to do the meeting in a secure spot [individually].”

This article was edited to add the comments of South Dundas Mayor Steven Byvelds and the director of communications with the office of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

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