Calgary city councillors debate rules around remotely attending meetings

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Calgary city councilors debate new rules limiting remote work time
A City of Calgary committee has approved new rules for city councilors who work from home. As Adam MacVicar reports, the new rules look to limit the amount of meetings councilors can attend remotely. – Feb 13, 2024

New rules aimed at limiting how often elected officials can remotely attend public meetings will now go to Calgary city council for a final decision.

Council members on the city’s executive committee debated the proposed rule changes Tuesday and voted 12-1 in favour of endorsing the recommended changes to both council’s code of conduct and procedure bylaw.

“The shift should focus to in person as much as possible,” the city’s ethics advisor, Emily Laidlaw, told the committee. “There are certain things that maybe members of council should think more carefully about when they make that decision to remotely participate.”

City councillors have been able to attend meetings remotely since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, rules around remote participation haven’t been updated since then.

The proposed rule changes would only allow councillors to participate virtually “on occasion,” while in an “appropriate and secure location” free from distractions, with cameras turned on and no digital backgrounds.

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The proposal also states councillors must use “best efforts” to participate in meetings in person, and remote participation should only happen in “exceptional circumstances” like an urgent personal or medical matter or when a councillor is out of town on city business.

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“We’re having the same argument that many workplaces are having right now,” Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian said. “I think it’s very important to consider it in the context of, we are meant to represent the public, we have to have a reasonable debate as to what the right measures are.”

Mian raised some concerns with the “flexibility” of the city’s recommended rules.

Last fall, the Ward 3 representative became the first Calgary city councillor to give birth while serving in the role and has regularly participated remotely for council and committee meetings instead of taking a parental leave.

Mian successfully added an amendment to the proposed rule changes so councillors could work remotely if their reasoning falls under “protected grounds” included in the Alberta Human Rights Act.

According to Mian, the provision could allow for remote work due to a physical disability or family status and helps provide an equitable approach for people who may seek elected office in the future.

“I appreciate that we need more guardrails around remote work for councillors, but the way these bylaws have been written is too restrictive,” Mian told the committee. “Councillors should be representative of the public that we serve, and we should allow remote work in certain circumstances to ensure equitable access to this role.”

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The new rules, proposed by the city’s Integrity and Ethics office, follow sanctions against Ward 13 Coun. Dan McLean in December after he attended a public hearing meeting remotely at a golf course last July.

However, city officials said the reason the proposed changes are being brought forward is unrelated to that incident.

“There has been some mention that this amendment is because of an integrity commissioner report.  That is not the case,” Laidlaw told the committee. “This has been a repeated issue for the last 1.5 years, probably longer.”

Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot was the sole councillor who voted against sending the new rules to city council for final approval.

He said the changes were “unnecessary,” and that council attendance in person should be the priority, especially during meetings that involve presentations from the public.

“Many people have lost confidence in council and a lot of it has to do with their lack of belief that they’re actually being listened to,” Chabot told Global News. “I just think there’s so much value in being in person.”

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