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National report gives Barrie passing grade in its handling of pandemic

Report's author notes 'everyone was scrambling' to understand state of emergency, stressing 'things have been done pretty responsibly in Barrie'

Barrie gets a passing grade on how decisions were made during the early weeks of the 2020 pandemic and how citizens were allowed to participate in local government, says one of the authors of a new national report.

‘States of Emergency: Decision-making and participatory governance in Canadian municipalities during COVID-19’ was published Sept. 29.

Led by University of Windsor law professor and Windsor Centre for Cities director Anneke Smit, the report scans municipal government practices across Canada during the early part of the pandemic and provides recommendations for reform to state of emergency legislation, and changes to municipal approaches to ensure that wide public participation in local decision-making is upheld - even during an emergency.

“These are important powers (state of emergency), but they’re also broad ones and it sounds like things have been done pretty responsibly in Barrie,” Smit said. “They got (city council meetings) going fairly quickly, they’ve managed to have public participation in the meetings.

“They were at least making some efforts to publicly message what it was all about, because I think this was new territory for everyone. No one knew the law on states of emergency,” she said. “Everyone was scrambling just to figure it out.”

States of emergency were declared in most of Canada's larger cities early in the pandemic. Barrie’s was declared March 23.

Declaring an emergency provides the city with additional powers and resources to protect the health and safety of Barrie residents, and streamlines the decision-making process for expediency through the City’s Emergency Control Group. This declaration aligned with the Ontario government’s Declaration of Emergency on March 17.

Smit’s report illustrates changes to municipal decision-making structures as a result, including unilateral decision-making by mayors and cancelled council, committee, and public consultation meetings.

Barrie had a city council and general committee meeting March 9, two days before the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. Council and its general committee next met March 30, general committee met April 8, general committee and city council met April 15 and then council met April 27.

“You could kind of see the difference between municipalities that were trying to make it work and those that were maybe taking advantage of things being a little simpler in terms of using those powers just to get stuff done,” Smit said of her report. “We looked at trends too; even if they were meeting, were they only dealing with COVID-related stuff or did they quickly get back to the full menu of agenda items?”

She said the report was entirely based on what was publicly available and not interviews with individual residents. The study doesn’t look at the role of administrative staff, in managing the crisis, and focuses on the political side - what media has reported, what the municipality itself has put out and what advocacy organizations have commented upon.

“Where we kind of landed in the report was there were challenging circumstances for everyone and certainly everyone had to find their way,” Smit said. “Some of it is about the culture of the municipality to start with…”

Generally speaking, she said there were fewer comments about not being able to reach someone at local government and more about delegations and deputations provided for at council meetings, and how long it took to get them up and running.

“Barrie is somewhere in the middle on that,” she said.

Her report cites several examples where cities showed innovation to ensure that public engagement and debate continued during the lockdown.

“Some municipalities didn’t take deputations, but would open up on-line commenting on stuff, or record a deputation and it would be played during the meeting, but you couldn’t actually be there live to do it,” Smit said.

“Some people prefer to do these things while they’re at home. You can be making supper or reading the paper. You’re still there and you can participate and you don’t have to go across town.

“I think there have been a lot of positives to the move on-line.”

The report also addresses how cities made important decisions during the pandemic’s early days - by the mayor, an emergency management team or the council.

“That’s different because then that’s subject to a debate by council and at least some kind of vetting of some of the issues,” Smit said, “as opposed to a unilateral decree by one person, who happens to be the mayor, but it’s still only one person. Or the emergency management team, as it has done in some communities.

“I’m not that sure unilateral powers on the part of the mayor are really necessary after the first few days,” she said. “Everything can remain functioning, the question is what should? Those are more nuanced discussions, which actually need more people at the table.”

The report concludes that reform is needed at both provincial and municipal levels to ensure that cities' emergency powers are limited in scope and time, to what is truly necessary in a particular emergency, emphasizing that public participation in governing must continue to be normal.

“There’s such a tension and it’s really playing out in Toronto right now, between what powers are there in the hands of municipalities vs. what needs to be provincial,” Smit said. “In some ways, it means the municipality can’t act because the province already has, but it also sometimes means the municipality looks to the province to do stuff so they don’t have to.”

Smit said the new report has already had the desired effect.

“Looks like it’s been viewed several hundred times on the website,” she said. “That’s what we wanted, to start the conversation.”

To see ‘States of Emergency: Decision-making and participatory governance in Canadian municipalities during COVID-19’, click here.

Here's a timeline that sheds some light on how Barrie handled the pandemic:

March 11 - World Health Organization declares the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. 

March 13 - All Barrie recreation facilities, including arenas, theatres and library branches closed until further notice. City ward meetings and planning meetings, city advisory committee meetings, general committee and city council meetings are cancelled until further notice.

March 17 - Province of Ontario declares State of Emergency.

March 19 - Effective March 20, Barrie Transit is free.

March 19 - Province of Ontario passes the Municipal Emergency Act, 2020, permitting virtual participation in council, committee or local board meetings.

March 23 - All city playground equipment and waterfront fitness equipment closed to public access.

March 23 - Mayor Jeff Lehman declares State of Emergency in Barrie.

March 27 - City closes dog off-leash parks, skateboard parks, tennis courts, basketball courts and picnic areas and pavilions until further notice.

March 30 - Barrie city council holds a special council meeting virtually. The public could watch the meeting live on YouTube.

April 3 - City sets up dedicated COVID-19 enforcement line for the public to report non-compliance with pandemic emergency measures.

April 3 - Mayor Jeff Lehman signs the Barrie COVID-19 Emergency Measures Bylaw to help protect the health and safety of residents. It prohibits certain activities and regulates physical distancing to help contain the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Violations to physical distancing regulations can result in minimum fines of $500 and a maximum of $100,000 for each offence.

April 6 - City cancels spring session for registered recreation programming, all special events and theatre shows are cancelled and there will be no bookings of sports fields until further notice. Community centres and theatres remain closed until further notice.

April 6 -  City temporarily lays off of a portion of its workforce as a result of COVID-19 - approximately 470 part-time recreation and theatre staff until operation of these facilities resume. With Barrie Transit free, part-time transit clerks have been laid off.

April 9 - City announces Barrie Marina, Bayfield Basin Transient Marina and the Tiffin Boat Launch will be closed to the public until further notice, as required by the Province of Ontario's emergency order.

April 17 -  City temporarily lays off 55 more workers - 25 temporary positions, 5 permanent part-time and 25 permanent full-time positions. These layoffs are necessary due to the extended cancellation of several non-essential city services and the resulting financial impact.

Source: City of Barrie