Wellington North exploring option of hybrid council meetings

WELLINGTON NORTH – Council here is looking toward eventually conducting meetings in a hybrid format.

At a meeting on Aug. 23, council received a report from township staff outlining the township’s ability to host hybrid in-person/virtual meetings.

Council also directed township staff to implement the necessary measures to allow for hybrid meetings to occur, the most important measure being the purchase of an additional piece of conferencing equipment that will enable integration between digital and analogue mediums.

A staff report notes there is a desire to return to some form of safe in-person public meetings, while there is equal desire to continue to offer the public, township staff, planning consultants, county planning staff, and others the opportunity to engage with council through electronic mediums.

The idea is for hybrid meetings to become a more permanent solution for the township, once council members return to Kenilworth for meetings. Because of limited space in the Kenilworth council chambers, it had been difficult for members of the public to access council meetings in the first place.

Additionally, a hybrid format for meetings would make it easier for township and county staff to participate in meetings.

“We as council can choose to move back to an in-person format, but there are quite a number of other, if I can put it this way, cast of characters, who provide us information and feedback, that having the ability to use this hybrid model will actually facilitate,” said Mayor Andy Lennox.

“We still need the ability to include people even after that time comes back.”

As part of the 2020 capital budget, council had approved funding to update the council chambers. These changes included building a new council table, and the inclusion of a new audio/video system that would enable recording of council sessions and amplify sound.

The report notes that these systems, approved just before the onset of the pandemic, were designed with the understanding that the extent of the requirements was to be able to record council meetings and provide for better acoustics within the council chambers for in-person meetings.

Because of this, the township is still in need of an additional piece of equipment in order to connect virtual participants to those present in the council chambers during meetings.

“The entire council chambers have had a fairly substantial refresh in terms of the technologies, audio, and video systems,” said director of finance Adam McNabb.

“Regrettably though, when it was designed, we were all in an in-person format, so it was really just designed to record and basically amplify the audio within the council chambers so that we could post the council sessions to our website after the fact.”

McNabb said the additional piece of equipment that the township would need to purchase would have the ability to decode an analogue signal and convert it to a digital signal.

“That one piece of equipment, really what it does is take the analogue feed that’s being created through the amplification within the Kenilworth chambers, and converts it to a digital format so that we could integrate that with Zoom, or a (Microsoft) Teams type of meeting.”

All modifications made to existing technologies will be funded by the township’s allocation from the province’s Safe Restart initiative and the expected cost of the required hardware needed to allow for hybrid meetings is $4,810 plus applicable taxes.

Staying put for now

CAO Mike Givens said that unlike other municipalities in the area, Wellington North is unlikely to return to the Kenilworth council chambers any time soon. For the next several months, the township is likely to continue its council meetings in a fully virtual format.

“We’ve seen some councils coming back and getting back to in-person meetings. I have no intent at this point, because of the size of our council chambers, and because of how well these meetings have gone, on pushing the envelope to get us back into the council chambers that quickly,” Givens said.

Givens said he doesn’t envision council meetings moving into a hybrid format until December at the earliest.

“I think we’re still going to be in a state where we’re still in stage three for a while, and while we’re in stage three I think I would still be an advocate for us remaining in the format that we currently are taking with our meetings.”

Council voted to direct staff to provide clarity as to when the switch to hybrid meetings will occur. For now, the hybrid meetings are expected to begin in early 2022.