P.E.I. cities seeing more participation in public meetings with technology bridging gaps

As participation in public meetings on P.E.I. returns to pre-pandemic levels, two P.E.I. cities say they are encouraged to see more people using technology to take part.

'This certainly opens up different avenues for people to speak'

The City of Charlottetown hosts public meetings at the Rodd Royalty. Video conferencing is available for those who want to ask questions of council. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

As participation in public meetings on P.E.I. returns to pre-pandemic levels, two cities say they are encouraged to see more people using technology to take part.

At the beginning of the pandemic, holding in-person public meetings wasn't an option for municipalities because of the health restrictions in the province.  

Public meetings have since returned, but the public's role in those meetings looks a little different. 

The City of Charlottetown holds its public meetings at the Rodd Royalty in Charlottetown. The city rents room and an overflow room. In the overflow room, members of the public watch the proceedings over a live stream. 

One of the major differences because of the pandemic is the ability for the public to attend those meetings virtually.

Greg Rivard, Charlottetown's chair of planning and heritage, says he's encouraged to see more people using videoconferencing to take part in public meetings (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

"Pre-COVID, we didn't have the luxury of using WebEx and some of the other channels that we have to involve the public," said Greg Rivard, chair of planning and heritage for the city.

"This certainly opens up different avenues for people to speak."

The city's council meetings and public meetings are also broadcast live online. The city invites the public to join the meeting virtually through WebEx,  a videoconferencing tool for those who might not be comfortable attending in person. 

Rivard said he's seeing the popularity of those options growing at Charlottetown's meetings. 

"The numbers are increasing each meeting we have. So, you know, I think that's a good sign.… I'm certainly encouraged by the amount of participation each and every meeting," he said. 

For those who might not feel comfortable going in person, Charlottetown council livestreams its public meetings. (City of Charlottetown YouTube)

Rivard said a woman living in Toronto with a home in Charlottetown called into one of the meetings because of an application affecting the neighbourhood, and he "thought it went really well." 

"We can see the person, you know, speaking to us as if they were live," he said. "The communication was perfect, and we were quite enthused by that." 

But, all of those changes to public meetings do come with a cost. 

Rivard said the cost to run meetings this way is in the $3,000 range, but it's worth it.

"It's not so much the money, it's the fact that people have all sorts of different avenues to be able to to express their concerns or share their thoughts," he said. 

Attendance to public meetings before the pandemic varied depending on what was being discussed, said Rivard.  The same is true now that COVID-19 considerations also come into play. 

Public meetings that council doesn't anticipate much public interest in are held in City Hall, with members of the public able to watch on a live feed in the building's lobby.

'Reaching more people online'

The City of Summerside has also returned to hosting in-person council meetings, with the public welcome to attend. 

Members of the public who want to attend have to call ahead and register for contact tracing purposes, said a spokesperson for the city in an email.

YouTube views of Summerside council meetings have been increasing, a spokesperson for the city said. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

In-person attendance before and after the pandemic has mostly remained consistent. Prior to the pandemic, the city had started to put recordings of meetings online the day after they took place, but once COVID-19 hit the province, council started live streaming.

The city said it's seeing more people tuning in to those meetings online than before the pandemic. 

"The YouTube views of meetings have gone up, so we are reaching more people online," the spokesperson said.

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