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

Restricting attendance in 350-seat hall will allow two-metre distance to be maintained, mayor says

Abbotsford residents will be able to attend public hearings in two weeks in Matsqui Centennial Auditorium – albeit in a limited, socially distant capacity.

Mayor Henry Braun said Monday that staff had worked out a plan that will see hearings proceed and those wishing to comment able to personally attend. Attendance would be limited to comply with provincial orders, with seating arranged to ensure at least two metres of separation was maintained, Braun said.

Abbotsford holds its council meetings in Matsqui Centennial Auditorium, which has capacity for 350 people. Braun said restricting capacity to under 50 people will allow for the necessary socially distanced spacing, and he said the first hearings won’t be on subjects or projects that will prompt large turnouts. (Many public hearings only draw a handful of speakers, if that.) He said staff would also be sanitizing the speaker’s lectern after each use.

“We can utilize one-seventh of this auditorium and still comply with orders,” Braun said. “This configuration will permit council to move the biz of the city forward, including public hearings.”

Council has been holding meetings mostly in person, but without the public in attendance. Members of councillors and staff have spaced themselves around the large hall, with some calling in remotely.

Braun said it is important for the municipality to continue its work so that businesses that are able to operate can move forward with their plans.

“Shutting down an economy is fairly simple, but restarting an economy will be a much more difficult task,” Braun said at Monday’s council meeting. “Governments at all levels need to be ready, willing and able to serve those businesses that are able and want to continue providing employment, albeit at a much smaller scale and all within the orders of the federal and provincial governments and their chief medical health officers.”

RELATED: Central Abbotsford apartment to proceed to a public hearing – eventually

RELATED: How do you hold a public hearing when public gatherings are banned?

Other municipalities are considering how they can proceed if social distancing rules persist for months.

Surrey has already decided that its public hearings would only be held virtually, with people able to submit written comments to council, speak over a telephone, or state opposition or support through a dedicated phone number.

Vancouver has said it is considering holding hearings online.

Braun said online-only hearings present logistical challenges, although he said more contentious issues that could draw large audiences may have to be held that way.

Selina Robinson, the province’s minister of municipal affairs, will speak to mayors on Thursday and could provide more guidance on public hearings, Braun said.

The News asked Fraser Health about the city’s plans on Tuesday. Dr. Martin Lavoie, the health authority’s chief medical health officer, said Fraser Health would want to discuss Abbotsford’s public hearing plans with city officials.

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