City hall, along with Matsqui Centennial Auditorium, are closed to the public. Patrick Penner/Abbotsford News

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

City of Abbotsford discussing how to hold hearings with appropriate social distancing

The spread of COVID-19 and the urgent need to keep people apart – rather than bring them together – has thrown a wrench into how changes are made at city hall.

City staff continue to work on applications to change zoning and other land-use rules by residents and businesses. Mayor Henry Braun said Monday that work is needed to enable those employers and businesses that remain open to continue to function and contribute to the economy.

But a key part of the city application procedure is the public comment process, whereby municipalities are required to hold a hearing to field input.

But how do you hold a public hearing in a world where social distancing is required? That’s the question city staff are now wrestling with.

Monday’s public hearing was cancelled, but council meetings did proceed. Braun said the city wants to find a way to hold public hearings, but would require any members of the public to be two metres apart from one another.

“We have to support our business community and those who are employing people to do things and make things,” Braun said at Monday’s council meeting. “We may have public hearings and we may restrict the amount of people that are in here, and we’ll for sure make sure there is two metres separation or more.”

RELATED: Abbotsford shuts city hall, postpones public hearings due to COVID-19

But everything’s so new and changing so quick that municipalities are on uncharted ground. The Local Government Act that sets the ground rules for municipalities and things like public hearings does not consider the possibility of months-long restrictions on public gatherings.

“I don’t know exactly the details but we can’t just let everything just come to a grinding halt,” Braun said. “This is very fluid, we’ll have to play things by ear to see how things evolve. Life as we know it has changed dramatically and I predict will stay for quite awhile, so we just have to work with what we know.”

While council meetings are closed to the public, and a security guard was stationed out of Matsqui Centennial Auditorium on Monday, the actual legalities of completely closing such a meeting are also uncertain. Braun says he expects and hopes that the province will issue temporary powers that will, among many other powers, provide a legal basis for officials to fully close the meetings.

Meanwhile, Monday’s council was unlike any other held before it, with councillors spread around the stage and staff in space normally reserved for the public.

Councillors decided where they would be sitting informally, it appeared. In fact, just minutes before the meeting started, the public could watch as Couns. Les Barkman and Bruce Banman used Rock Paper Scissors to determine who would sit in their usual seat and who would be forced to an area normally occupied by staff. (Barkman lost.)

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