City Council to remain virtual over summer, but many councillors ready to return now

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For more than a year, Mayor Jim Watson has been sitting alone in the council chamber during city council meetings, while Ottawa's 23 ward councillors connect virtually via Zoom.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought in-person city council meetings to a halt in 2020 but with high vaccinations and low case counts, many councillors say they're ready to return to their seats in the council chamber, though that's not expected until at least the fall.

Speaking to reporters last Wednesday, Ottawa Board of Health Chair, Coun. Keith Egli, said a return to in-person council meetings was under review by city staff.

"I know the clerk's office is looking at this, figuring out how and when this might occur and, of course, any of those decisions would be informed by talking to public health," Egli said.

He added that going virtual has led to an apparent increase in public engagement at committee meetings, as people can connect from home to meetings online.

"In some cases, we're getting far more community input with that process than when people would do it the more traditional way and come down to a committee room or council chambers," he said.

Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brent Moloughney added that Ottawa Public Health would support the city on preventive measures when people return to city hall in-person, but he said there should be no rush to return to in-person meetings.

"The pandemic's not over; we're not out of this," he cautioned. "We would still be saying, at this point, to be cautious about a rapid return to indoor workplaces that are not essential to do that, and we're still at risk of resurgence, as we've seen in other places, in the next weeks and months."

In a statement, Caitlin Salter-MacDonald, the manager of council and committee services at the city clerk's office, said meetings would continue to be virtual through the summer, with a final decision on fall still to come.

"The Office of the City Clerk is currently reviewing plans for the fall and anticipates communicating recommendations to Council in this regard later this summer. Meetings will continue to be held virtually through the remainder of the summer, and until further notice," the statement said.

"Considerations being taken into account in recommending changes to the current process will include health and safety as well as technological and physical logistics, with the goal of ensuring that all Members of Council can continue to safely and effectively participate in Council and Committee meetings and that the public can also continue to participate in the process in accordance with the City’s Procedure By-law, in a meaningful and predictable way."

Andrea Lanthier-Seymour, the director of public information and media relations, added that they are working with the clerk's office to allow journalists to return to in-person scrums and interviews at city hall.

"Media Relations recognizes that traditional media outlets play a crucial role in the City of Ottawa’s mandate to inform and engage residents on municipal services, programs and initiatives. The Media Relations team will also be reviewing plans for the fall and will work in tandem with the Office of the City Clerk to provide a recommendation in this regard later this summer," Lanthier-Seymour's statement said.

During the pandemic, media availabilities have been held on Zoom or via teleconference and the number of questions has been limited.

CTVNewsOttawa.ca reached out to all 23 city councillors and the mayor's office this past week to ask whether they would be comfortable returning to in-person meetings and whether they are fully vaccinated.

Fourteen councillors responded by the time this article was published. The mayor's office said Watson was unavailable.

Of the councillors who replied, all said they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or would be by the weekend, and many said they would be willing to return to in-person meetings right away, though some said they would prefer to wait.

Egli wasn't the only councillor to comment on engagement with virtual meetings. In responses to CTVNewsOttawa.ca, Coun. Jan Harder and Coun. Glen Gower both said that virtual meetings have improved accessibility and ease of participation for many.

City council meets Wednesday before the extended summer break, though there will be virtual committee meetings through July and August. The next council meeting after Wednesday is scheduled for Sept. 8. 

Councillor responses

Responses are listed in the order they were received. 

Eli El-Chantiry, Ward 5 West Carleton-March

"Yes, I’m comfortable enough to go in today to in person meetings. Secondly, yes, I am vaccinated with both."

Riley Brockington, Ward 16 River

"I am personally comfortable to return to the Council Chambers now. I think this will be more likely once the City has reached a double vaccination mark of 80%.

"I am double vaccinated, yes, AZ and Moderna."

Shawn Menard, Ward 17 Capital

"I will be fully vaccinated as of this Friday (July 16).

"I'd like to return to council chambers as soon as possible in the Fall.

"It’s odd that we have the mayor's staff in that council room but elected councillors have been told to stay away."

Jean Cloutier, Ward 18 Alta Vista

"I received my second vaccine dose on July 1st.

"I am comfortable returning to council and committee meetings as advised by OPH and Dr. Etches."

Tim Tierney, Ward 11 Beacon Hill-Cyrville

"1) We are all awaiting guidance from OPH and the city clerk's office. I certainly hope October.

"2) yep! AZ and Moderna... ready to roll! (I am a little excited)"

Glen Gower, Ward 6 Stittsville

"I would like to be able to return to in-person meetings as soon as possible, as long as OPH advises that it’s safe to do so. I would also like us to keep the option for virtual attendance in some capacity for both councillors and members of the public. There have been some big advantages & improvements to meeting accessibility via zoom.

"I’m fully vaccinated."

Jan Harder, Ward 3 Barrhaven

"Public have greater ease in participating. We are seeing far higher numbers engaging. I am not in a rush and with the exception of a minority who were regular attendees I know others are enjoying the opportunity to engage and follow the business of their City.

"I am fully vaccinated."

Jeff Leiper, Ward 15 Kitchissippi 

"I’m vaxxed x2. I’m very keen to get back to in-person meetings as soon as possible, which will be on the advice of the City working with OPH to determine when it’s safe."

Laura Dudas, Ward 2 Innes

"I have spoken with the Councillor and she has asked me to share that she would be comfortable returning to in-person Council meetings, when Ottawa Public Health has shared that it is safe to do so, and would not want to rush them in their decision. To your second question, the Councillor has received both of her vaccine doses." –Via Legislative and Policy Assistant Sean Callaghan.

Carol Anne Meehan, Ward 22 Gloucester-South Nepean

"I am fully vaccinated. I believe I would be comfortable going back to council chambers at any time now, so long as my colleagues are vaccinated as well, and some safety precautions remain in place. It will probably make sense to return in the fall. Looking forward to it!!"

Keith Egli, Ward 9 Knoxdale-Merivale 

"I am double vaccinated : AZ and Pfizer.

"I think, at the very least, we should get past early Fall to see how back to school impacts our community. Having said that I will be paying very close attention to the recommendations of the Clerk’s Office and our local MOH."

Allan Hubley, Ward 23 Kanata South

"Yes, I am fully vaccinated now - thankfully!

"It isn't a question of when I feel safe to return to chambers, it is more a question of when it can be done safely for everybody. A lot of support staff and others are involved in that transition so I am fine waiting until the Clerk has every aspect covered.

"We don't want a fourth wave this fall."

Theresa Kavanagh, Ward 7 Bay

"I will feel comfortable going to committees and council in person once Ottawa Public Health (along with Ontario regulations) gives the go ahead. I am feeling productive at home so I am not in a hurry.

"I am fully vaccinated.

Catherine McKenney, Ward 14 Somerset

"I would be comfortable returning to Council Chambers now for in-person Council meetings. I am fully vaccinated."

Mathieu Fleury, Ward 12 Rideau-Vanier

"I will be ready to return to in person meetings when Ottawa Public Health and the Province allow for these larger official gatherings to be safe.

"I am very fortunate, like many in Ottawa, to have had the opportunity to get vaccinated with my 2 doses. OPH, Paramedics, City and Ottawa Health Teams were amazing in creating a safe and welcoming environment for vaccination. I encourage everyone to get vaccinated."