Nova Scotia

CBRM council chamber to remain empty for now despite renovations

Cape Breton Regional Municipality staff recently installed plastic shields between each councillor and staff seats, but according to public health rules, meetings cannot exceed 10 people, even with distancing.

Even with new plastic shields, council has to keep meeting online until gathering limits ease

Mayor Amanda McDougall of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality says the addition of plastic shields to the council chamber still doesn't meet public health guidelines. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality's elected representatives have not met in the civic centre's council chamber since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, and it's unclear when that will change. 

They were scheduled to meet in person today, but the recently renovated chamber was unable to overcome public health restrictions.

Mayor Amanda McDougall said she was more than disappointed when Nova Scotia's chief public health officer and the Emergency Management Office rejected the municipality's plan to meet at city hall.

"I was a little angry. I won't lie," she said. "It's hard when you see staff do such a tremendous job of planning and looking at chambers. We've also put some financial investment into the council chambers as well, so you want to be able to use that."

Council met in person recently at the Centre 200 arena, where councillors were able to spread out at a safe distance. For the most part, however, CBRM council meetings have been online since last year.

CBRM's deputy chief administrative officer, John MacKinnon, says the municipality spent about $2,000 to install the plastic shields between seats, (Tom Ayers/CBC)

John MacKinnon, deputy chief administrative officer, said staff have been working hard to get councillors back inside the civic centre.

"We looked at the possibility of being able to have them in different locations within the council chamber, but because of the horseshoe shape of the council chamber, it was almost impossible to be able to create a setup that would provide enough social distancing to allow it to happen," he said.

Staff recently installed plastic shields between seats and thought that would work. But according to the rules, public meetings cannot exceed 10 people — even with distancing — despite low numbers of new infections in the province.

"We used our own staff to do the installation and I think we did a pretty darn good job so hopefully, once things get lifted a little, [meetings] will be in the council chamber," said MacKinnon.

As of Monday, there were 15 active cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia. No new cases were announced Monday.

MacKinnon said the renovations, which cost about $2,000, will likely help whenever restrictions on gathering limits ease.

McDougall says she is eager to get into the council chamber for meetings, but is prepared to wait a little longer for restrictions to ease. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

For now, council will simply go back to meeting online until restrictions are lifted, said McDougall.

"We can do our jobs and do our jobs well from anywhere, but being in this room, it's a significant part of that title of being a councillor and making decisions for the community," she said.

"Being eager to get back into council chambers is for me a personal thing, and I know for the new councillors as well, they're eager to get in here and actually be able to use the technology instead of using pens and paper ... but we'll get here soon enough."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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