Prompted by the current COVID-19 pandemic and the declared State of Emergency, this week the Town of Aurora will be conducting its first ever electronic Council meeting.
The meeting announcement was posted by the Town of Aurora on March 27th, 2020 on social media, specifically on Twitter and Facebook: “On Tuesday, March 31 we will be holding a Special Meeting of Council to discuss matters relating to Town operations during this state of emergency. This meeting will be held via video conference and will be live streamed here.” Unfortunately the announcement appears to have received very low social media engagement.
On Monday morning, March 30th, Mayor Tom Mrakas did mention the date and time of the Special Meeting in his weekly video; however he gave no details about the agenda of the meeting. One may expect that a Special Meeting of Council would have a Special Agenda that residents would be encouraged to review.That being the case, Special Meeting of Council March 31, 2020 Agenda – click here.
I don’t usually write blog posts summarizing Council meeting agendas but I do believe this one is worth reviewing by the public before watching the meeting, especially considering that the COVID-19 pandemic State of Emergency is a continuously evolving situation. According to the Town message, “Residents who would like to provide comment on an item on this agenda are encouraged to provide their feedback in writing.” Realistically, by the time you are reading this blog post, there may not be enough time for the Town Clerk to process and present your comments before the deadline; however I would still encourage residents to voice your concerns with members of Council and Mayor Tom Mrakas directly.
To make this meeting a bit more relevant it is important to know that in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, and under the current State of Emergency, the Town of Aurora is providing relief options for tax and water bills. It is also important to know that payments for water and tax can be deferred only to later date without penalty but not reduced or forgiven. For those with lost income during this difficult time, the deferral may be helpful but without reductions it may not be enough. You are also encouraged to pay your tax and water bill on time if you can. For more information you should visit the Town of Aurora website.
Now regarding the Agenda of the Special Meeting of Council (Tuesday, March 31, 2020 7 p.m.), there will be a COVID-19 staffing implications and verbal update from the Town of Aurora Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). Also I’d like to bring attention to two by-laws of interest:
Will Town of Aurora Council go ahead with water rate increases?
Increased water rates were already approved in the last budget; however, considering the special circumstances of Aurora being under a State of Emergency and not knowing when it will end, will Town Council consider deferring the water rate increases? Remember, currently the water bill is deferred only; you will still have to pay by the new deadline. If approved, the water rate increase will be in effect starting May 1st, 2020. Currently that’s the expected COVID-19 recovery period when it’s unknown if Aurora residents will be back to work and school or still home, or businesses back to regular operation. With clear emphasis on the importance of cleaning and washing, increased water usage may be unavoidable, so it only seems reasonable that our Council may want to reconsider the timing of the increased water rates.
Maybe they can follow the example of our Provincial Government that gave Ontarians a small financial break on our electricity bills by reducing rates to a single off-peak electricity rate for a period of six weeks.
Our Council would need to enact a by-law in order to increase the water rates. Because the water rates were already established in the last budget, if there are no concerns or questions raised in the Special Meeting of Council related to this item, the by-law may never be pulled for discussion and Council could easily vote for the increase. I would suggest writing to Council if you are concerned, or ask for clarifications.
How relevant will Aurora Council Members be during a State of Emergency if this By-Law Passes?
Emergencies such the COVID-19 pandemic provide our leaders with an opportunity to show their strengths, abilities, and willingness to work in the public’s best interest, all at a time when they are needed most. The next by-law on the Council agenda is all about that. It is an amendment to an already existing Delegated Authority by-law which calls to add the acting Mayor and Aurora Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) to have elevated authoritative powers during a declared State of Emergency. You may not know, but the Delegated Authority by-law was enacted last year in October and at that time gave authority to Town staff only.
I think this amendment is questionable considering the timing. We can ask how well prepared is Aurora for any emergency? Why are we approving Delegated Authority to the Mayor and CAO now, during a State of Emergency? Has the public had time to review and understand why the Delegation of Authority should go to them? Are they sufficiently trained and qualified to take on the responsibility? Upon reviewing the chart of added authority to the acting Mayor and CAO specifically, I can understand Items 1, 3 and 6 may be necessary, but from my perspective the rest need some clarification otherwise they appear questionable.
Overall I am not very comfortable delegating authoritative powers to one or two people if our elected Council members are still fully functional during an Emergency crisis. One of the reasons our Council reduced themselves from eight to six-member was so that debates would be more effective. Note as the amendment currently states, the acting Mayor with CAO consultation will make the decisions and Council will only be “notified as soon as practicable”. Effectively that means in times of Emergency (like now during COVID-19), related to the specific delegated authority items listed, we would be allowing the reduction of our six-member council to one (the acting Mayor) and not even calling the other Council members into the decision making until sometime after the fact.
That also means if you are concerned with a decision made by the acting Mayor under Delegation of Authority during a State of Emergency, your Councillor may not be able to help you out. Since most of those decisions during an Emergency would likely be made behind closed doors without public awareness, I would feel more comfortable empowering whatever number of Council members is “practicable” at that time, and allow them to form a quorum electronically to make decisions collectively. Otherwise it’s easy to question what is the benefit of having a Council that would not be in a position to work in the public’s best interest, arguably at a time when they are needed most? I look forward to Council pulling this important by-law for discussion, clarification and debate during Aurora’s first ever electronic Special Meeting of Council.
UPDATE Unfortunately, the Special Meeting of Council streaming on March 31, 2020 was not available due to technical difficulties. The video was uploaded next day and can be watched here:
Anna Lozyk Romeo