Ottawa citizen transit commissioners to hold ‘informal’ chat to replace cancelled city meetings

Citizen transit commissioners in Ottawa have organized their own meetings after city-run transit commission meetings were cancelled. Nick Westoll / File / Global News

An Ottawa citizen transit commissioner has set up a video chat meant to replace public transit meetings that have been cancelled for three months during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Sarah Wright-Gilbert, who has been vocal in her criticism of Ottawa’s troubled new LRT system, created an online video chat event set to take place the night of May 13, after the May transit committee meeting was cancelled by the chair, Coun. Allan Hubley.

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The last transit meeting was held in February, with the March meeting cancelled due to uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, the April transit meeting was cancelled.

“That was disappointing,” Wright-Gilbert said, “given that the city of Ottawa had been holding online virtual city council meetings and a number of different committees.”

Wright-Gilbert said citizen commissioners supported the decision to cancel the March meeting but were at a loss as to why the April meeting was cancelled, since the technology was there to facilitate it.

Hubley spoke with Global News on Thursday and said all committee meetings that are not considered absolutely essential, like transit, audit and environmental committees, have been cancelled during the pandemic.

These cancellations were made on the advice of the city clerk, who said that only committee meetings that deal with statutory requirements or time-sensitive reports will be allowed to go ahead.

This is something, he claims, both Wright-Gilbert and Coun. Riley Brockington were made aware of before they chose to send a letter to him on April 27, asking that the transit committee meeting proceed.

Wright-Gilbert said she and Brockington sent the email because they got the sense that the May meeting was about to be cancelled.

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The email laid out five points Wright-Gilbert felt ought to be discussed at the meeting, including a potential $99-million transit deficit created by the COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-19 mitigation efforts on transit and questions about how the city will be returning to full transit service once reopening strategies are deployed.

In an email Hubley sent back to Wright-Gilbert, which she shared with Global News, Hubley said he had decided to cancel the May meeting despite the commissioner’s request, because they did not qualify under the two requirements set by the city clerk.

“After consultation with staff, I am of the opinion that this scheduled regular meeting is not necessary at this time, as there are no substantive reports for the commission to approve. In this same vein, there are no reports of a time sensitive nature that are statutorily required to be considered,” the email from Hubley read.

Wright-Gilbert said she felt transit commission meetings were used for more than simply approving reports, and disagreed with what Hubley defined as “urgent.”

“To say that there’s no urgent matters… well, there are. We’re projecting a $99-million budget shortfall because of COVID, on transit alone. I’d like to hear how we’re going to plan on dealing with that.”

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Transit commission meetings, Wright-Gilbert said, offer an opportunity for citizens to represent resident concerns at the table with councillors and city staff. Although issues can be brought up at council, citizen commissioners do not have a voice at council.

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Hubley noted that as a councillor, he’s representing constituent concerns at council at each meeting, and that residents are not waiting for a transit commission meeting to express them to their councillors.

“Every day we hear about transit issues,” Hubley said.

He noted that these are unusual times, and that the city is having to operate under emergency orders, so not all municipal procedures will runs as they once did.

“If she’s not able to have a seat at the council table, she should run in the next election. We’re not going to give her that honour, because that’s how I see it, as an honour,” Hubley said about Wright-Gilbert.

He also questioned the usefulness of citizen commissioners, claiming that their position may now have been rendered moot with social media.

As for Wright-Gilbert, she seems concerned about whether transit meetings will continue to be cancelled in the future.

Prior to emergency orders put in place during the pandemic, Wright-Gilbert noted that chairs could only cancel two committee meetings in a row, and the next meeting would have to go ahead. But, at the last city council meeting on April 22, councillors passed a motion to allow chairs to cancel as many meetings as needed.

Hubley quoted that new motion in his email back to Wright-Gilbert. It’s this motion that makes her worry that the June meeting will also be cancelled.

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There are no scheduled meetings in July or August, which means that we would not be having a meeting until September, which means that we’d be going for far too many months, seven to eight months without a transit commission meeting,” Wright-Gilbert said.

That is why Wright-Gilbert decided to take the meetings into her own hands and organize a Zoom chat for residents to ask citizen transit commissioners questions.

The event is not sponsored by the city of Ottawa and is set to be an “informal” meeting where residents can ask questions about transit.

Wright-Gilbert said she’s slightly nervous at how the meeting will go, but she believes the demand is there.

“People have been asking for it,” she said.

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