WOODLANDS COUNTY - Given that social distancing requirements are unlikely to lift any time soon, Woodlands County is investigating the possibility of upgrading its Whitecourt and Fort Assiniboine offices with videoconferencing equipment that would allow council meetings to be livestreamed in the future.
By a narrow 4-3 vote, Woodlands County councillors passed a motion during their July 21 meeting to put out a tender for local companies to upgrade both offices with the necessary equipment to stream meetings, at a cost not to exceed $75,000.
Woodlands County council has been livestreaming its meetings since late April, with the proceedings being broadcasted over Youtube or the county’s website. Despite some technical difficulties, mayor John Burrows said the feedback they’ve gotten regarding the video stream has been quite positive.
The possibility of continuing to stream meetings was raised by CAO Gordon Frank, who had reached out to an audiovisual company to get a quote on how much it would cost to install the necessary equipment in all four meeting rooms at the Whitecourt office. (Incidentally, the quote was for $61,197 plus GST.)
Whitecourt East Coun. Jim Rennie said he thought it was a great idea, though he had been notified of several other companies that wished to have an opportunity to bid on this tender.
After Anselmo Coun. Dave Kusch and Fort Assiniboine/Goose Lake Coun. Dale Kluin echoed Rennie's statements, noting they also felt it was an “amazing idea” but it was important to let other companies submit bids on the project, Rennie put forward a motion to advertise this tender as soon as possible, later accepting a friendly amendment that this project not exceed $75,000.
However, Coun. Ron Govenlock said he was opposed to the recommendation, noting that the quote Frank received only dealt with upgrading the Whitecourt office and not the county’s Fort Assiniboine office.
He also stated that he was concerned with it being an unbudgeted expense. Blue Ridge Coun. Bruce Prestidge later reiterated that point, suggesting this matter be put off for a year in order to be financially responsible.
Burrows said he recognized that funding was an issue, but transparency is “absolutely vital” in an organization like Woodlands County, and streaming the meetings allowed more people to actually view the proceedings.
He also pointed out that when people are interested in a particular council meeting, they’re usually only coming for a specific portion of it. As such, they may waste several hours driving to the meeting and sitting through the proceedings just to catch what is said during a 15-minute segment.
Kluin asked administration why Woodlands County was still holding remote meetings when he had read about many nearby municipalities switching to live in-person meetings.
Frank noted that when Alberta entered Phase 2 of its re-opening, indoor gatherings were limited to 50 people that had to keep two metres apart.
Having recently held a meeting in the Whitecourt council chambers on July 6, Frank suggested they could only fit 20 people in that room if they had to stay two metres apart.
Based on his interactions with the administrators of other municipalities, Frank suggested that other councils were gambling on large numbers of the public not showing up.
He also pointed out that per regulations under the Municipal Government Act, Woodlands County is required at a minimum to stream audio of meetings.
Govenlock then suggested it would be prudent to tender out the installation of video conferencing equipment in both Fort Assiniboine and Whitecourt.
In the end, Burrows, Kluin, Rennie and Kusch voted in favour of the motion, while Govenlock, Prestidge and Dale McQueen voted against it.