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Kingston city hall changes the way it runs due to coronavirus

Kingston city council has implemented changes to council meetings due to COVID-19 concerns.
Kingston city council has implemented changes to council meetings due to COVID-19 concerns. Global Kingston

The first meeting of Kingston city council since the World Health Organization declared a novel coronavirus pandemic will mark a significant change in the way the local government conducts its business for the foreseeable future.

Council is poised to bring in new measures to alter its 2020 budget Tuesday to reflect extra spending and a drop in revenues, give councillors more flexibility to vote from home and hold regular meetings in a new, larger venue.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — All non-essential workplaces ordered to close in Ontario

The 19th-century council chamber on the second floor of city hall is no longer considered safe for politicians, staff, the media and the public due to the close proximity of desks and chairs — social distancing rules would be next to impossible to follow.

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A typical council meeting can see 20 to 50 people gathering in the chamber known as Ontario Hall, including the mayor and 12 councillors, senior staff, delegations to council and other members of the public.

The March 24 meeting will, instead, be moved to the opposite end of city hall into the more spacious Memorial Hall.

The room has been converted into a makeshift council chamber to try to reflect social distancing rules.

New COVID-19 assessment centre opens at Kingston’s Memorial Arena to make way for more people
New COVID-19 assessment centre opens at Kingston’s Memorial Arena to make way for more people

The makeshift councillor and staff desks are now spaced at least two metres apart from one another, while a limited number of media and spectator gallery seats have been set up.

City officials say the twice-monthly council meetings will continue to be streamed online.

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However, this may also be the last time the mayor and all councillors will attempt to meet in person during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Last week, MPPs approved emergency COVID-19-related legislation, including the Municipal Emergency Act 2020, allowing municipal councils to conduct their business remotely.

The legislation gives municipalities the ability to fully conduct council, local board and committee meetings electronically when in-person meetings cannot be held, according to a news release from the premier’s office.

“These changes empower municipalities to respond quickly and continue to function when in-person meetings cannot be held, and council decisions need to be made,” said Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing.

Kingston city councillors are set to alter their own procedural bylaw to allow elected officials to participate in meetings from separate locations and, based on provincial legislation, allow them to take part in debates and votes remotely.

READ MORE: How Kingston is doing good, staying connected during the coronavirus pandemic

A motion introduced by Mayor Bryan Paterson will allow any member of council or one of its committees to “participate electronically in a meeting which is open to the public during a duly authorized declaration of emergency.”

The change means members can participate in meetings through telephone, video or audio conferencing or another interactive method as long as they can be heard by other members, staff and the public.

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Those wishing to avoid the standard council gathering and stay at home must give the clerk 48 hours’ notice in order to allow time to configure the best means of electronic participation.

It’s believed to be the first time in recent memory that Kingston will schedule meetings using the electronic participation option, a signal of just how serious and potentially long-lasting the public gathering restrictions surrounding COVID-19 are.

Councillors continued to meet in person during the last two municipal states of emergency – the 1998 ice storm and the 2003 blackout.

Nursing home residents share messages with their loved ones through social media.
Nursing home residents share messages with their loved ones through social media.

The mayor’s motion also enables council to revoke electronic participation during a meeting with a two-thirds vote.

The coronavirus outbreak is also playing havoc with the municipal budget.

The city has scaled back or closed some municipal services while waiving a host of rules and fees to assist the community in responding to the public health crisis.

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In recent days, the city has allowed free public transit and free street and municipal lot parking, waived monthly parking permit fees, expanded residential garbage collection, closed arenas and other recreational facilities, halted building inspections and reduced other municipal services.

It remains unknown how long the measures will remain in place.

However, the loss of projected revenues from these and other measures is expected to have a significant impact on the 2020 tax-funded municipal budget that was approved months before COVID-19 became a household term.

Council is not adding up the fiscal impact at this point but, rather, bracing for more.

Coronavirus: Loblaws stores place markers to ensure social distancing
Coronavirus: Loblaws stores place markers to ensure social distancing

To that end, another council motion to be debated March 24 would broaden the spending powers of chief administrative officer (CAO) Lanie Hurdle during the pandemic.

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Paterson’s motion deals with amending a bylaw covering the delegation of powers and duties to the CAO in the event council or its committees are unable to act.

It would allow the CAO to “approve any expenditures or incur any other liability for unbudgeted emergency expenditures related to COVID-19” without the need for prior council approval.

The city’s top non-elected official would retain the extraordinary financial powers until council decides to revoke them.