‘They are engaging in a fundamental violation of the Human Rights Code’: Virtual council meetings a nightmare for local accountability
It isn’t uncommon for Brampton’s 11 council members to be confused. They constantly mix up technical terms like referral or deferral and they often find themselves mired in tangential discussions during council meetings.
None of them have two full terms of experience and five are rookies in their first term.
It falls to Peter Fay, the City Clerk, to put them right. With his mask strapped beneath his chin and a mop of sometimes misbehaving hair, the veteran bureaucrat battles to keep council within the rules meant to govern their conduct.
Fay helps councillors navigate the pesky procedures designed to keep the process of local government open and democratic, always responsive to the people who put them in office. Members of the public hoping to keep track and help ensure accountability are too often on their own.
“Obviously it’s impossible to follow what they’re talking about because you don’t have the text to follow what the propositions are,” David Lepofsky told The Pointer.
He had reviewed a video of Brampton’s October 20 council meeting and was left somewhat dismayed.
Lepofsky is a blind lawyer and leading advocate for people living with disabilities. He is the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA) and has pushed forward key concerns for those living with disabilities, including strong opposition to electric scooters.
“I can tell you, by comparison, when for example in the Ontario legislature we took part in debates over legislation like 10, 20 years ago, if a standing committee received amendments they were read out and they voted on them.”
Peter Fay coordinates Brampton’s council meetings.
(Image from City of Brampton/YouTube)
Inside Brampton’s legislative chamber, things can be chaotic, especially for those who are unable to see what councillors are seeing.
“At the beginning of the meeting, there was the added item 14.5 regarding a request from Blackthorn Developments for a Minister’s Zoning Order resolution, and there was a consideration to deal with both of the items together,” Fay explained to councillors on October 20, trying to stickhandle a last-minute discussion about two requests made by Mayor Patrick Brown to bypass the traditional development planning process by using a provincial approval tool instead. “So we just need a moment to bring them up because we need them to be introduced before we can put them on the screen. So, Charlotte has on the screen the first motion as it relates to 14.3 and just momentarily we're going to bring up the second motion as it relates to 14.5. There it is there, Charlotte.”
Brampton’s agenda promises these sorts of basic communication barriers should not exist.
“Meeting information is also available in alternate formats upon request,” it states. The claim is not backed by the typical communications offered for public meetings, as issues around accessibility for residents living with and without disabilities abound.
The videos of council meetings on Brampton’s website don’t offer accessible navigation in the standard player, for example. Video files matched to agendas have some options to skip through by clicking on specific items, but the buttons to fast forward and rewind cannot be used by those with visual impairments. Anyone who uses accessible technology has to watch the full meeting to catch a particular moment or exchange.
Councillors walk motions onto the floor without providing written materials to the public and motions are drafted on the spot often without being read out in full. Sometimes decisions flash across a non-accessible online projection for mere seconds.
Brampton councillors race through meetings, sometimes approving items or allowing procedural advancement without any discussion or description of what has happened, referencing items using short-form and agenda item numbers and barely drawing a breath before moving toward adjournment.
“It’s a joke,” Lepofsky said, “it’s a joke. These guys are on there and I’m going to gamble that most city councillors who are one meeting after the next going on Webex may well be oblivious they are engaging in a fundamental violation of the Human Rights Code. They’re flying in the face of the objectives of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. These laws require that they not create new barriers — well, they did.”
The City of Mississauga began reading its items and bylaws out in full at meetings during 2020 to make them more accessible. The same practice was introduced at the Region of Peel. But the broader issue of accessibility, including for those less comfortable with various technology platforms used during the pandemic and now, in some cases, being taken up more routinely, is a systemic problem.
It’s often older residents most engaged in the civic process who feel most cut off from a system that’s supposed to serve them.
Before the pandemic, Brampton councillors met in-person.
(Image from The Pointer files)
Many accessibility issues existed before the pandemic, with chaotic council meetings cutting people out. The transition to virtual meetings has compounded the situation. Access to technology and the quality of internet connections are now often a prerequisite to present to council.
In Caledon and Brampton, in particular, key decisions are being rushed through without public notice. Some community members have found their attempts to present shut down and their audio connections muted before they feel they have been able to make key arguments.
“I do not like virtual meetings because they result in people not really able to express themselves,” Joe Grogan, a long-time resident of Bolton, told The Pointer. “Some people are intimidated by the process because the technology is so depersonalizing. In my opinion, the process does not encourage or facilitate citizen engagement.”
When COVID-19 forced the end of in-person gatherings in March 2020, the Province amended the rules governing councils to allow them to meet digitally. Elected officials and bureaucrats switched almost instantly to a virtual format. A return to in-person meetings has been more drawn out, and in some jurisdictions, like Brampton, one gets the impression elected officials such as Mayor Patrick Brown prefer the lack of direct public scrutiny.
Even before the pandemic, more and more debate was being conducted in-camera, behind closed doors, away from public view, an issue that some Brampton councillors have openly raised during the so-called public portion of meetings.
“In consideration of the current COVID-19 public health orders prohibiting large public gatherings and requiring physical distancing, in-person attendance at Council and Committee meetings will be limited to Members of Council and essential City staff only,” reads a note that has sat at the top of Brampton’s agendas in some form for almost two years.
Mayor Brown recently said in-person meetings would return “whenever it is deemed appropriate” without offering a timeline. This is the same person who was pushing to re-open restaurants and bars during the height of the pandemic. Meanwhile, many other cities have returned to in-person meetings.
As of September 7, Mississauga resumed in-person meetings for council and all standing committees, with an option for virtual participation for those who still prefer the digital format.
It’s unclear why Brampton has not done the same.
Potential advantages to online meetings remain. Councillors can take part in discussions from anywhere in the world when exceptional circumstances force them to miss a meeting, while residents can present without travelling to City Hall if they don’t have the time or access to transportation. Advocacy groups can appear virtually at councils across Ontario from a single office, maximizing the often limited resources of non-profit organizations.
These advantages don’t all come automatically, and there are clear trade-offs.
Lengthy motions in Brampton flash across a screen briefly before being adopted.
(Image from Isaac Callan/The Pointer)
Grogan, who professes to not love technology, says the pandemic’s impact on local council killed his engagement. He went from a regular council watcher and an engaged taxpayer to a frustrated citizen.
“In my case, I used to follow agendas and meetings religiously. Not anymore,” he said. “The effort required is just not worth it. In the past, it would be easier to raise last-minute concerns from the floor of the meeting; this is less possible with virtual meetings. Moreover, how can citizens challenge items as in the past? The entire situation is orchestrated and controlled.”
Councillors also no longer have to appear in person at the meetings. Residents or members of the media cannot catch their attention after meetings to raise concerns or ask questions; both groups are often forced to deal with faceless email accounts instead.
Lepofsky experienced the extreme limits of poorly thought-out virtual meetings last summer.
In the heat of a battle between electric scooter lobbyists and disability advocates, he planned to appear before Toronto City Council. His speech was a key moment for the campaign to limit e-scooters on Toronto’s sidewalks after months of lobbying efforts. He only had a few minutes to put the concerns of Ontarians living with disabilities on the table.
The meeting was scheduled to take place using Webex, a system that lacked accessibility features, especially early in the pandemic. Its icon-heavy design, with limited keyboard shortcuts, meant Lepofsky was forced to call into the meeting by phone instead of using his computer. “I’m a blind guy, for me to use my computer I have a program called a screen reading program,” he said.
He recalls the encounter vividly.
To make sure he didn’t miss his spot, Lepofsky had to call into the meeting 30 minutes early. He listened to the clerks organizing the agenda until the meeting began at 9:30 a.m. and then sat through a further hour of discussions unrelated to his item. Finally, e-scooters came up and Lepofsky paid close attention to the lobbyists, preparing to make his remarks and rebut some of their arguments.
“Our next speaker is David Lepofsky,” the chair said. His sentence was followed by a heavy silence.
On the other end of the phone, Lepofsky was growing more frustrated by the second: “This is David Lepofsky, can you hear me?”
“Mr. Lepofsky? Has Mr. Lepofsky called in? We have no indication — he’s not here,” the chair continued.
Lepofsky’s heart was pumping. He began desperately sending emails to City staff and council members telling them he was in the meeting trying to speak. The presentation he planned to make was pushed to one side in his mind, as he scrambled to secure a speaking spot he had already been granted.
“I’m screaming into the phone like my blood pressure is going through the roof,” he recalled. “There’s no phone number to call and I’m starting to email as many people as I can, and this is all because they’re using an inaccessible app.”
It is one of many barriers to accessing local council that have developed through the pandemic. These obstacles are more than inconvenient: they actively limit residents’ rights to take part in the democratic process.
A lack of opportunity for public participation in local democracy leaves few chances for residents to hold elected officials accountable.
(Image from Google Maps)
It is unclear when all councils in Ontario will return to full in-person meetings. Brampton is currently considering plans for a hybrid system to be implemented in January, although it is unclear how new variants or provincial health measures could impact this plan.
“Following the Province’s announcement of its Plan to Safely Reopen Ontario and Manage COVID-19 for the Long-Term, the City is planning to expand its safe reopening and resumption of in-person services – including Council meetings,” a Brampton spokesperson told The Pointer in October. “We’ll have more information in the coming days.”
That was a month after Mississauga had already moved to an in-person option.
On November 16, a spokesperson said to keep waiting. “Discussions on timeline and other aspects such as vaccination proof requirements are underway,” they said. “We can provide more details once they are available.”
The failure to do what Mississauga and other jurisdictions did, to ensure democratic participation, has meant the Brampton budget process for 2022 has been done virtually, shutting some residents out of the debate to decide how their money will be used.
In-person meetings are also rife with barriers to accessibility that are borne from ignorant or lazy meeting structures. An example of this is councillors springing new motions at the start of a meeting so that those who require an accessible agenda are unable to read the details of what has been proposed. The switch to a virtual format has made things worse.
Inaccessible technology put up more walls, and made many parts of the local democratic process less accessible to a range of local residents.
“I sort of don’t need to parse out whether they know better or they should have known better, they know better and don’t care or should have known better and didn’t think about it,” Lepofsky said. “In 2021, there is no way an elected politician could reasonably expect anybody watching [the Brampton October 20 council meeting]… to have the slightest idea what they’re deciding.”
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