At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic every level of government had to rapidly modernize how services were delivered. Virtual meetings, as in the private sector, became the norm for courts, government services, and legislative meetings. In some cases this modernization was not a far stretch as service delivery already had some remote ability. For municipal governments, this has been a rapid move towards modernization that was long overdue. An unintended yet welcomed benefit from the pandemic – transparency.
Very few municipal councils in Ontario offered a remote attendance option for spectators. Only large cities like Toronto and Ottawa had streaming regularly available for citizens to watch. Cable access for some smaller areas with community access channels was/is available like in Cornwall.
When public health measures were a concern, local government could continue remotely with staff and elected officials carrying on with the business of the day. In rural communities like South Dundas and SDG Counties, this access broke new ground opening the doors of transparency as regular council meetings and committee meetings were now broadcast on YouTube. This not only expanded access for media like The Leader to cover more local government councils, committees, and boards; it also gives citizens the ability to view and inform themselves directly from the source.
To its credit, the provincial government quickly passed legislation to allow elected officials to conduct legal meetings online, and offered funding to help speed up the process. Two years later, watching your local government in action is as easy as point and click.
At the March 21 SDG Counties council meeting, elected officials discussed continuing to stream meetings online now that public health restrictions have been lifted. Council unanimously supported this initiative citing the benefits of transparency. We agree. The benefit to citizens is clear. Greater transparency through broadcasting meetings informs citizens of what local government does.
To be clear, remote attendance for elected officials should only be in the case of illness or severe public health restrictions. Elected officials should show up in person to do the job they were elected to do.
As SDG has set the bar in continuing this form of government transparency, lower-tier councils in the six municipalities should also follow that example. Transparency in government comes at a cost, but it is one we can all afford.