OCP hearing

Special projects manager Ben Johnson addresses city council at a July 2019 public hearing at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre.

Politicians are walking a fine line as they seek a balance between maintaining public participation in the democratic process and protecting public health.

Current orders from the provincial health officer meant to limit contact between people as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have also short-circuited regulatory requirements that specify how municipal governments do business.

Anthony Haddad, who serves as chief administrative officer for the District of Summerland, told council this week he’s expecting an announcement from the B.C. government in the coming days that will help ensure local governments don’t grind to a halt.

“What that means is yet to be seen, but we certainly know the province is looking at those pieces of legislation that guide how council meet and the community are involved in our public processes,” said Haddad.

Council has deferred all development applications and other items that require an element of public consultation while awaiting more clarity.

Meanwhile, the 19-member board of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen has determined chairwoman Karla Kozakevich will be the only director physically present at meetings, while the rest will attend electronically.

“We’re looking at different platforms for that now, other than just a teleconference,” CAO Bill Newell said in an email.

Public attendance is still up in the air, though.

“Right now, legislation requires board, or council, meetings to be open. We haven’t heard anything formal from (the province), so if we do proceed with a meeting on April 2, we would have to figure out the safest way to allow the public into the board room,” said Newell.

“We’re still working out the details on that, but we would have to ensure social distancing was practised.”

Newell noted the RDOS is still accepting development applications.

Penticton MLA Dan Ashton said he’s not privy to what sort of changes the province is considering, but is supportive of finding a way to keep local governments running.

“I think there are democratic alternative processes that could be put in place during situations like this,” said Ashton, a former local politician, pointing to technology like videoconferencing.

There was speculation at last week’s RDOS meeting that the province is considering allowing councils and boards to simply close their meetings to the public.

In a letter sent last week to top local government officials, Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth acknowledged they are “aware of procedural issues, such as public attendance at council/board meetings and limitations on the ability of councils and boards to meet electronically.”

“It is important that we move quickly,” the letter added, “but also thoughtfully on these matters, to ensure you can continue to deliver good government in your communities.”