Cornwall council won’t give up in-person meeting despite Bergeron’s plea for video option

Cornwall City Council meets inside the council chambers at city hall on Monday, May 11, 2020, with physical distancing in place. Coun. Eric Bergeron wanted a video option to participate during the coronavirus pandemic but there's a lack of appetite from others on council. (City of Cornwall/YouTube via Newswatch Group)

CORNWALL – Cornwall City Council continues to meet in person in the city council chambers with physical distancing in place during the coronavirus pandemic despite a councillor’s insistence there should be a virtual video option.

Coun. Eric Bergeron tried to ask for a staff report Monday night on the feasibility of having virtual council meetings by video but the request was voted down by a majority on council.

“I actually don’t want to be in this room right now. I want to call in but it’s impossible to follow (on the phone). There has to be a better way,” Bergeron said.

Since the Ontario government relaxed meeting rules for municipal councils, many municipalities like the United Counties of SD&G, South Glengarry, North Glengarry, South Stormont, South Dundas, Ottawa and Toronto have gone online using Zoom or Cisco Webex.

There were at least a dozen people in the room Monday night — eight councillors (Coun. Maurice Dupelle was by phone and Coun. Justin Towndale is away on deployment), Mayor Bernadette Clement, CAO Maureen Adams, Clerk Manon Levesque and Planning General Manager Mark Boileau.

A couple of Cornwall councillors say meeting online is not the same as face-to-face while another complained about being trained on technology.

“I think it’s a bit premature…I’m a person who believes that council needs to be physically present. I think it’s a much better discussion, a much better meeting and generally tends to bear more fruit,” Coun. Dean Hollingsworth said. The councillor, who teaches online, says it should be a “last resort” but could not support it now – maybe a couple of months down the road.

“I like to have people in front of me when we’re debating things,” Coun. Syd Gardiner said. “I like to look at people’s faces in their eyes and see what they’re trying to say to me.”

Gardiner also complained about the “five minute training” he received from the city’s IT department. “Until I get the proper training, I am not going (on video). I’m just starting to use my iPad and feel pretty comfortable with it. But there are things that I don’t know. And you young ones, you’ve been using it since you were born almost, well, we haven’t.” Gardiner later clarified that he’s not opposed to video meetings but recounted his problems with technology and wants 2-3 hours of training with someone who “knows what the hell they’re doing.”

Mayor Bernadette Clement – who has an assistant handle her Zoom conferences, Facebook Live events and social media – thanked Gardiner for his “candor. It’s appreciated.”

Clement says the city has a “weird hybrid” of technology but she supports different types of council participation. But she voted against the report because the CAO gave a verbal report at the meeting and other options were going to be explored.

Coun. Glen Grant agreed with Hollingsworth. “I don’t want to give people excuses not to come to meetings. I like sitting around a table with everybody and looking in their eyes,” Grant said.

CAO Maureen Adams explained that the combination of people in person, webcasting plus trying to do a Zoom and also broadcast on the local cable station was “technically complicated” to pull off.

Adams conceded that the phone-in option that’s allowed right now is “not a good solution” but a combination of all the technologies in a webcast “which is not great” would not be beneficial for the general public. “The quality for the community to listen and understand the debates that go on in these meetings will be more difficult, might not be as a good as having a council meeting with councillors present,” Adams said.

Another option city staff is looking at is setting up council physically at the Cornwall Civic Complex, plus adding more people in the room with YourTV operators, local media representatives and allowing delegations in person. Everybody would have to practice physical distancing in the larger space.

Coun. Maurice Dupelle, speaking by phone, was in favour of video participation. “We shouldn’t be looking at doing it later on…that’s the reason I haven’t been attending council meetings. I think we need to lead by example. It’s happening everywhere and I get comments all the time that we’re shocked that, yes, we’re practicing social distancing at city hall but everybody is there. I think we should be doing this video conferencing during the pandemic time, not after.”

“The message is loud and clear. Every time you listen to the prime minister, to Premier (Doug) Ford, if you can work from home, work from home. I think this is an opportunity for city councillors to work from home.”

The CAO will gauge interest from council on running a test of the “hybrid situation” of video, webcasting, Zoom and cable broadcasting.

Mayor Bernadette Clement agreed that a test is the better option.

“I’d rather test it as opposed to doing it and having it fail where we have councillors not being able to participate and that – that’s the line! If we have councillors not able to participate, then it’s a no-go. And if it’s just one that can’t participate, then it’s a no-go. There are 11 of us here and we all have a right to participate and we all have a right to feel comfortable with the process,” the mayor said.

The “hybrid” would have to take place at the city council chambers, given all the technology is not able to be moved to the civic complex.