Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)

Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)

Online council meetings, mail-in voting option to be extended in B.C.

Proposed law makes municipal COVID-19 exceptions permanent

The B.C. government plans to keep online council meetings and public hearings available as an option for local governments after the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on indoor gatherings are lifted.

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne presented amendments in the B.C. legislature Thursday that also give the minister authority to allow municipalities to borrow from their financial reserves to cover operating expenses and repay later. Temporary authority under emergency orders is due to expire on July 10, and the changes would retain the requirement that borrowing from reserves would have to be repaid by the end of 2025.

“We are hearing that having the option to participate in public hearings and meetings virtually is more equitable for people who face barriers to joining in person, which is why we are giving communities the power to do a mix of virtual, in-person or hybrid meetings, while maintaining transparency safeguards,” Osborne told the B.C. legislature May 13.

The legislation also gives municipalities the ability to pass bylaws to allow expanded eligibility for mail-in voting.

Interim B.C. Liberal leader Shirley Bond said Thursday the opposition will have to study the amendments and question the minister, but there is a demand for remote access, especially from smaller communities.

“I do believe that in-person is always an important component of being an elected official,” Bond said. “Communities that I represent, smaller ones for example like Valemount and McBride, have found a way to adapt using technology. We have to be acutely aware of technological challenges, but I do think there will be legacy of COVID that does include a more online presence.”

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