Ontario municipalities consider letting councillors join meetings remotely

As more of our lives are pushed online, Ontario municipalities are considering letting councillors participate in meetings virtually rather than in person.

A change to the Ontario Municipal Act last spring gave cities and towns the power to draft bylaws allowing councillors to chime in by phone, video call or through some other electronic method.

The provincial legislation says that as long as there is a quorum, or a minimum number of councillors are physically present, municipalities can allow virtual attendance. 

Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan have given municipalities similar powers. 

Ontario municipalities that choose to let officials join meetings from offsite also have the power to create rules around what kind of meetings councillors can join remotely and how often.

A committee at Hamilton City Hall will discuss the possibility on Thursday. 

John Mascarin, an expert in municipal and local government law with Toronto's Aird & Berlis LLP tells NEWSTALK 1010 municipalities have asked for his opinion on how to implement virtual participation and how to add safeguards.

While Mascarin declined to name his clients, he says the municipalities are both big metropolitan centres in the Greater Toronto Area and quasi-rural, developing areas.

"Places I suppose up in the north where geographic population is a little bit more sparse, you have long distances between places. Long winter nights, maybe some council members decide 'I'll stay at home' and still participate and not lose my ability to represent my constituents."

But for the city of Toronto, councillor Jon Burnside calls the idea totally ridiculous.

"Council only meets two or three days a month to begin with and if a councillor can't get his or her body down to the council chamber for those two or three days, they need to find another job."

Burnside admits the monthly, all-day meeting of council takes some advanced planning at home, including coaxing a neighbour to let his dogs out.

"When you're in public service, you figure it out."

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti isn't sold on attending meetings virtually either.

"It's always best to be able to see, feel, and touch your politicians instead of talking to them through a device," Mammoliti said.

The Ward 7 councillor has regularly drawn criticism for his less than stellar attendance record at meetings of Toronto city council

A Toronto Star analysis found that Mammoliti missed nearly half of the recorded votes at council in 2017.

Speaking with NEWSTALK 1010 on Monday Mammoliti defended his record saying that while absent from votes he was meeting with constituents or doing work in his office. Mammoliti also suggested he only skipped votes that did not affect the residents of York West. 

Among the votes Mammoliti did not participate in are ones related to the King St pilot project, of which Mammoliti has been a fierce opponent.

While John Mascarin says many cities and towns are curious to at least explore electronic participation in council meetings, he believes most will wait until after this fall's municipal election to make a decision.