Clerks Preview Upgrades to Council Chambers

When members of city council, and members of the public, return to the council chambers Tuesday evening for the final meeting of the term, they will notice some changes. Since the last in-person hybrid meeting in the chambers in mid-July, City staff and contractors have been busily performing upgrades to reflect our new reality of hybrid council meetings, and to create a more accessible environment for everyone.

At first glance, you’ll notice changes like a new screen, two monitors at the side of the horseshoe for people in the gallery, and that empty table in the centre that was almost never used has been replaced with a kind of ops centre for the clerks office staff.

“The focus for us has been about accessibility and service, so this allows us to support the individuals that might come to the podium,” explained City Clerk Stephen O’Brien. “So instead of us having to get up and walk around, we’ll all be centrally housed so that the City Clerk’s Office team can support all of council from one location a little bit more readily.”

Delegates advocating to council in-person will also notice changes to the podium itself, it will be able to move up and down to accommodate people in scooters and wheelchairs as demonstrated in the following video:

Further accessibility concerns are being addressed with closed captioning of the meeting’s proceedings on screens inside the chambers, plus a system that people who are hearing impaired will be able to access through a personal device so they can more closely follow the discussion. There will also be wireless mics available for people who might have mobility issues and are unable to come down to the podium.

All this sounds impressive, but the work on the council chambers won’t be completely finished by the time the curtain rises on the new term in two weeks. “The same supply chain challenges that we’ve had in some cases have come to bear on this project as well, namely in and around things like technological components,” O’Brien said.

Some of those missing technical components will delay things like closed captioning in the chambers, but it will also delay increase in production value in broadcasting the council meetings. Since the return of in-person meetings for council earlier this year, online viewers have had to watch with the restrictive single camera angle at the back of the chambers. That will change once all the delayed technology is in place.

“When we do get the rest of that equipment, the other four cameras that you see – two on either side and two behind [the horseshoe] – will be active, and will auto pan, tilt, or zoom based on who’s speaking,” O’Brien said. “So the broadcast quality that we used to have when Rogers would broadcast the meetings pre-pandemic will return somewhat. We will be able to control the cameras as well, but it’s generally pretty automated.”

“The audio is probably going to be the more noticeable improvement than the video, so we shouldn’t have to worry about echoing or feedback in the way that we had to before,” added deputy clerk Dylan McMahon. “So there will be a cleaner audio feed, and then when we get the video switching for a delegate who is participating via video or over the phone that will be a significant improvement in audio as well.”

While the improvements are meant to guide council into the future of hybrid and accessible meetings, there will a return to normal business in one respect with no more show of hands votes. Like in pre-pandemic times, council will press the yes button or the no button, and the results will show up on screen.

“So you’ll see the members of council actually physically pushing buttons, and they will do that on a software-based tool,” O’Brien explained. “The agenda tool that we have for getting agendas and materials for meetings, that software now powers the voting system. So staff recommendations, provided we’ve got amendments or motions from members of council with enough advanced time, those will be included and shown on screen along with the vote record.”

Other additions in the chambers include retractable screens on the wall on either side of the horseshoe plus new LED lighting that replaces the old high-powered bulbs that lit the chambers for conventional TV broadcast and also heated up the area around the council table itself.

“There’s not a lot of climate impacts with this space in and of itself, but those lights were incandescent stage lights, and they threw an awful lot of heat, and they demanded an awful lot of energy,” O’Brien said. “So transitioning to the LEDs doesn’t look much different, but they’re much brighter, with less heat being thrown, and obviously, much less energy usage.”

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