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Constraints on civic engagement during COVID-19 pandemic

St. John’s City Hall on Tuesday. Keith Gosse/The Telegram
St. John’s City Hall on Tuesday. Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Amid fewer St. John’s council meetings, city asks for public input

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Juanita Mercer

The Telegram

With physical distancing and orders to stay home, remaining engaged in civic matters is not as simple as visiting city hall, or sitting in the public gallery during weekly council meetings.

On March 17, the city announced it would cancel all public meetings until further notice. At the same time, council meetings were closed to the public and were webcast instead.

On March 23, a morning announcement said that afternoon’s council meeting would be postponed until the following week, March 30, and since then council meetings have been held biweekly rather than weekly.

“There’s not the volume of activity that’s required to do the weekly meetings,” Mayor Danny Breen told The Telegram in a virtual media scrum after Monday’s meeting.

“I think once we get going we will revert back to the weekly meetings, but right now we don’t feel that they’re necessary right at this time.”

The biweekly committee of the whole meetings were also postponed indefinitely, with any matters usually discussed at those to be sent directly to the regular council meetings.

Breen said a final decision has not yet been made about committee of the whole meetings, but he anticipates they will go ahead again when there’s a greater volume of activity to warrant them.

Breen said the city received guidance last week from the province on how to conduct public hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic, so that clarification should generate more activity.

Meanwhile, the city will host a Facebook live event sometime this week to answer residents’ questions. Breen said further details should be released by Wednesday.

On March 17, public engagement on city projects and initiatives was also suspended, and now the city is asking residents to provide some feedback on how to proceed with public engagement during the pandemic.

“As we all adjust to doing business in a time of COVID-19, there are many conversations happening about how we continue to do the regular day-to-day business of cities. This includes seeking feedback from the public on policies, programs and projects,” reads the city’s Engage St. John’s website, engagestjohns.ca.

“As we listen to our provincial and federal updates, it is becoming clear that working virtually and maintaining physical distancing is going to be the new normal for a while.”

An online poll on the website asks whether the city should continue to engage on projects and initiatives not related to the current public health crisis.

At press time, 106 people answered the poll, with 91 per cent of them answering, “Yes, we need to keep having conversations about the things that impact our city for the future,” six per cent responding, “I am not sure,” and four per cent responding, “Not at this time.”

On the Engage St. John’s website there is also the opportunity to contribute open-ended ideas or ask questions.

Some items the city has referred for public engagement include street network changes to promote physical distancing for pedestrians and cyclists, and sidewalk snowclearing, among others.

[email protected]

@juanitamercer_

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