Director of Planning and Development Darren Braun addresses council during a public hearing Monday. Mayor Henry Braun (bottom left) says the city is likely the first municipality in British Columbia to hold a public hearing that the public is allowed to attend. Screenshot

Abbotsford holds public hearing with an audience – and the province’s blessing

Hearing may be B.C.’s first socially distanced hearing with public present

The City of Abbotsford held a public hearing Monday evening.

That’s usually not news, but these aren’t usual times. Monday’s hearing may have been the first such public hearing where residents were allowed to attend in person since large gatherings were banned by the province last month.

Under the close eyes of staff tasked with ensuring proper social distancing, eight people attended the hearing in the 350-seat Matsqui Centennial Auditorium where council usually meets. (Over the last month, a new seating arrangement has seen councillors spaced out in desks usually occupied by staff, who themselves are distributed around the auditorium. Some councillors and staff have participated online, but not in person.)

Only one issue was on the agenda – a small townhouse development near the historic downtown.

Before the hearing, Mayor Henry Braun said the city needed to permit in-person attendance of public hearings to conform to provincial rules and protect itself legally.

“The rules regarding public hearings are extremely rigorous and any deviation from the legislation or legal requirements can leave the city at risk of legal challenge,” he said.

While virtual meetings can be held, Braun said that if something stopped a resident from connecting, that could render the hearing void.

“Until the Province of B.C. makes changes to the legislation, we are left operating in this reality.”

Braun said the province has suggested they are looking at making arrangements. In the meantime, he said the city’s hearing format will allow people to maintain sufficient distance from one another.

Braun said municipal affairs minister Selina Robinson had cited Abbotsford specifically on a recent call with mayors, and expressed support for the city’s ability to hold hearings while complying with distancing requirements.

RELATED: Abbotsford looks to hold in-person public hearings, with audience size limited

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