Municipal Laws for Public Engagement During Physical Distancing

Municipal Law for Public Engagement during Physical Distancing

The following content is intended to be general information, not legal advice - please always seek legal advice particular to your situation.

As pandemic response continues into the foreseeable future, many local governments are navigating what it means to go digital. Balancing physical distancing orders with the public’s right to open democracy raises an important question: is moving meetings online as simple as it seems? It’s critical for local governments to consider how online decision-making meets their legal requirements for privacy, accessibility, and public consultation, especially now as they find themselves governing under unprecedented States of Emergency.

To help work through this new legal territory, we spoke with expert guest Andrew Tarver at our latest #eDemocracy Webinar. Andrew practices in labor, human rights, administrative and political law with Allevato Quail & Roy. Previously, he has spent ten years as a lawyer and political adviser in Alberta, working with the provincial NDP and helping to draft legislation such as the Alberta Humans Rights Act. 

Andrew covered the “broad strokes” of municipal decision-making in a physically distanced world, with a particular focus on British Columbia. His biggest piece of advice? Stay up to date. “Make sure that you are staying on top of things and be prepared for things to change very, very quickly. Be adaptable, be ready to adjust on the fly, and make sure you're staying current because situations absolutely change overnight.”

To learn more, watch Andrew’s clip below.

Bonus: scroll to the bottom to learn about a new tool to help you satisfy your consultation requirements during physical distancing.

Video breakdown: 

1:00 -  Host Andrea Reimer reads Andrew’s full bio. Andrew introduces what he’ll be covering. 

5:06 - Distinguishing between administrative decisions & legislative decisions. Each will have different requirements for transparency, procedural fairness, and public accessibility. 

7:28 - Two things to know about with regards to electronic council meetings in BC: Section 128 of the Community Charter and recent Ministerial Order M083. The latter has dramatically opened up the ability to hold electronic meetings, for now.  

12:43 - Moving on to public hearings: in BC, these still legally require that communities have opportunity to provide informed feedback on municipal proposals. 

14:55 - Moving into the issues around electronic public hearings, and how to work around one particular legal requirement that says hearings must be held in a place accessible to the public. 

17:25 - Briefly covering privacy, security, and storing of personal information.

19:30 - Briefly covering accessibility, specifically with regards to a requirement to provide the public enough avenues for participation. 

21:40 - Andrew is asked to talk more about the distinction between administrative public hearings and legislative council meetings. Is it a good idea to hold public hearings right now? 

25:28 - Final last thoughts: "be prepared to adapt fast". 

You can also click here to watch the full eDemocracy Webinar, hosted by former Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer: Bridging the Digital Divide During Physical Distancing

Speaking of bridging the digital divide:

Even now, most legislation requires that the public have opportunities to leave feedback on municipal proposals. Without providing a variety of accessible ways to participate, there’s a risk that your public hearing could be deemed invalid. 

If you’re wondering how to satisfy this consultation requirement during physical distancing, you may be interested in Virtual Open House. It’s a new tool that combines offline and online technology to help you engage community members from the safety of their homes - with no internet required.

Visit for more information, or fill out the form below to get in touch and discuss hosting a Virtual Open House in your community.

Interested in hosting a Virtual Open House in your community?