The Month at Council: Mostly COVID-19 Stuff, and Only One Meeting

For the second time in the COVID-19 era, city council sat for what is now being called a special meeting. The mayor and senior staff were socially distant in the council chambers while the members of council called in from home in what was the one and only council meeting for the month of April on Thursday April 16.

The meeting began with Mayor Cam Guthrie and Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart reviewing the actions that the City has taken so far, and the directions they’re going to take moving forward. Guthrie will be forming a new task force that will meet monthly to look at energizing the local economy over the next year, both during the crisis, and once it’s reached its conclusion. Stewart then talked about the tough decisions that the City has made, and then about the work of the emergency operations committee.

Councillor Dan Gibson asked to pull the two items on the consent agenda, which were the Property Tax Policy report and the Temporary Borrowing Policy.

On Property Tax Policy, Gibson asked if council could defer the decision until finance staff explored the possibility of pausing changes to the tax ratio while leaving in place the hospital levy. The general manager of finance and City treasurer Tara Baker said that the staff could take some time to do that work, but they would need council to approve an option before the end of the first week in May so that the tax bills can be prepared for the end of June. The deferral passed 11-2.

On the Temporary Borrowing Policy, Gibson asked to amend the recommendation to set a borrowing limit of $50 million instead of $100 million. Baker said that she was fine with the idea of coming back to council in the event that she needed that additional $50 million, but she also reinforced that it’s her intention to not use this potential line of credit at all, and that she just needs room to act nimbly for the City’s fiscal picture. The amended motion passed 11-2.

Stewart then delivered another presentation that discussed how the City was “managing, not panicking” through the response to COVID-19. He also said that the City was thinking beyond the immediate concerns of the pandemic and is looking at how to get economic activity going again after the pandemic by discussing funding infrastructure projects with the higher levels of government. In the meantime, there will be at lease one council meeting every month to discuss the City’s pandemic response, and authority is being delegated at City Hall again as various response tables are getting established.

This was also the first item that featured delegations, and most people were concerned about using the pandemic to expand active transportation access by turning traffic lanes on some City roads into dedicated bike lanes, or even pedestrian paths in places where the sidewalk isn’t wide enough for social distancing.

Deputy CAO Kealy Dedman said that some of the examples that the delegates cited are in higher density areas, and that they’re worried about the mix message of creating more active transportation assets while telling everyone to stay home. In any case, Councillor James Gordon said that he’s going to work with staff to come up with a motion for the potential expansion of active transportation during the pandemic.

Another delegate insisted that the fiscal measures that the City was taking were not good enough, and that the City needs to take more action to keep its fiscal house in order during the pandemic without sacrificing public health. Still, the delegate felt that there were too many City staff members at home being paid to do nothing, which is an assessment that Stewart vehemently disagreed with.

The report and its measures, which included the waiver of transit passes and parking permits and fees until June 30, the waiver of fiscal penalties and interest on water, wastewater, and stormwater user fees through July, and the deferral of late fines and interest on missed property tax payments until the end of July, were all approved unanimously by council.

The final item of the public portion of the meeting was about changes to the Procedural Bylaw. A pair of delegates felt that two of the changes gave the mayor and clerk too much power over when and how delegates were called, but City Clerk Stephen O’Brien said that the point of those two clauses was flexibility, and pointed out the need to act immediately at the previous emergency council meeting.

Having said that, O’Brien explained that council is learning as they proceed with these special meetings, and they’ve now proven that they can handle delegations at meetings, which implies that more frequent meetings, with delegates, is going to be become areality as staff become more adept at the technology. The recommendation passed 12-1.

Council then went into closed session to discuss staff considerations with the COVID-19 response.

The one closed meeting item was “COVID-19 Response – Staff Considerations,” and according to the council minutes, “Trevor Lee, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, Corporate Services, provided an overview of the proposed transition of permanent staff to temporary leave as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and response.”

The next special meeting of city council has been called for Monday May 11 at 2 pm. The meeting will be live-streamed from the City’s website, and there will be an option for people to delegate.

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