How does your council compare on engagement?

A friendly competition between neighbouring governments

Now that Westshore councils are picking up momentum, it seemed like a good time for a friendly competition. Most councils have stated they want more public engagement, so let’s have a look at how easy they make it for the public to engage.

Each Westshore council meets twice a month, mostly Monday evenings. Their agendas are posted a few days in advance. According to provincial rules, municipalities allow public participation in the beginning of their meetings, but comments are limited to whatever is on the agenda—it’s not an open town hall. And, any item on the agenda that has already had a public hearing cannot be commented on. These rules are straightforward for people who watch councils closely, but I’d safely bet we’re a minority.

All over the Westshore, politicians are looking for ways to meaningfully engage with the public. Not easy considering rules municipalities follow, staffing constraints, and general lack of attention most people pay to local government.

Langford Mayor Scott Goodmanson wants to see dozens more people attending public meetings simply because they’re interested in what’s going on. To that end he’s planning to renovate council chambers to increase the capacity for viewers. In Sooke, Mayor Maja Tait has put all cards on the table to get people to talk to council.

“We interfere with and upset everybody—uh, routinely. And yet we saw low voter turnout,” she said at the last council meeting.

One way to engage is simply making council meetings easy to watch and understand. So The Westshore came up with a scoring grid to compare each council’s meeting accessibility.

Highlands — last place, but also first?

Highlands council meets at 7pm on the first and third Monday of each month.

  • The District of Highlands broadcasts its council meetings live, but does not post the recording afterwards, hence, they have no score. For those not able to watch live, the two ways to find out what happened is by calling the District, or waiting to see meeting minutes in the next council meeting agenda. The audio and video quality is fine, if you’re able to watch.

  • What we’d like: We’d love to have the video recordings posted! Everyone else is doing it. We should also note that while Highlands doesn’t have great digital engagement, it did have one of the highest voter turnouts in the October municipal election, even though the mayor was acclaimed, and only three people were challenging existing councillors. This tells us Highlands has a well-engaged civic community, despite its lack of YouTube presence.

Fifth place: Metchosin

Meets at 7pm on the second and fourth Mondays, and is usually well attended by engaged citizens.

  • Promptly available—4 Videos are posted immediately, but aren’t linked

  • Easy to find—3 Available via the civic portal and posted on Metchosin’s YouTube account, but committee and council meetings are on the same recording. The portal links the video to one meeting, even though it contains several. The video title on YouTube doesn’t identify all the meetings it contains.

  • Audio—2 If the speaker remembers to turn on their mic, and speak directly into it, audio is fine. But if they don’t it’s very hard to hear. Frequent squeaks and ambient noise are distracting.

  • Visual—3 Stationary wide angle camera is better than nothing, but doesn’t show speakers or identify who’s speaking.

  • What we’d like to see: Just improve the audio and you’re golden, Metchosin!

Fourth place: Sooke

Sooke council meets on every second and third Monday at 7pm. They used to meet on Tuesdays, but Mayor Maja Tait has declared every future Monday “Municipal Monday” in Sooke, in an effort to keep Mondays on people’s calendars and keep them coming back. Every Monday something will happen, whether a council meeting, committee of the whole, or a casual coffee meet-up.

  • Promptly available—4 Videos are immediately available on YouTube, but often take longer to show up on Sooke’s website.

  • Easy to find—3 I am one of the 153 people who have actually subscribed to Sooke’s YouTube channel, because that’s the best place to find videos. The automatic transcription service can be helpful to find specific parts of the meeting, but it’s not reliably accurate. It hears “Sooke” and writes soup, suit, souq, or silk. Once they’re linked to the agenda page, you can watch the video on the same page as the agenda, which is convenient.

  • Audio—4 Sooke has a similar challenge as Metchosin, in that each speaker must remember to turn on their microphone. Most do, so the most awkward part is the difference in volume between speakers. Their setup seems to have less ambient noise distraction.

  • Visual—2 Similar to Metchosin, the stationary video is better than nothing but it doesn’t identify speakers or show members of the public who come to speak. Staff show the agenda on the video screen, which is helpful except that it moves the camera view of chambers to a small rectangle, making it even harder to identify who is speaking. By now I recognize their voices, but I might be one of 153 people who do.

  • What we’d like to see: Overall, Sooke’s council meetings are easily accessible. Time-stamped links to agenda items would make it easier for people to follow up on items of interest. A better camera setup that identifies speakers would be nice, but it’s not a major impediment to civic engagement.

Third place: View Royal

View Royal council meets on the first and third Tuesdays at 7pm. 

  • Promptly available—4 View Royal’s meeting recordings are posted quickly. The best place to find them is View Royal’s Vimeo account. The link is also shared on the agenda page, but this link shows up later.

  • Easy to find—5 Agenda times are linked to the moment they are discussed in the agenda, which makes reviewing the meeting for a specific topic a breeze.

  • Audio—5 No problems here! Everyone has their own microphone, and partitions between speakers minimize ambient noise.

  • Visual—2 View Royal’s stationary camera shows the seven-member council, but like many neighbours doesn’t identify or zoom in on speakers. It doesn’t show members of the public who speak, or staff.

  • What we’d like to see: A camera set-up that identifies speakers and shows public participation.

Second place: Langford

Langford council meets every first and third Monday at 7pm. Public is welcome to attend. There is a capacity limit of 45 people in the audience, but Mayor Scott Goodmanson is hoping to expand it significantly with a renovation.

  • Promptly available—4 Langford’s council videos are usually added to the agenda page within a day of the meeting, but are not immediate like councils that broadcast on YouTube or Vimeo.

  • Easy to find—4 The videos are only available on Langford’s website where they are linked by time stamp to the relevant agenda item. Attachments, reports, and submissions are linked under the video, which is a major help for Langford’s several hundred page agenda packages. The city has come a huge distance from having no livestream at all—even during COVID—to the system they have now. They started with audio recordings in the first months of 2021, and then added video in March, paired awkwardly with its several-hundred-page agendas. This May the city moved to the platform they have today.

  • Audio—5 Having watched dozens of council meetings, I have never complained that I can’t hear a speaker, so Langford’s setup gets top marks.

  • Visual—4 Langford has two cameras, one to show public speakers, and one aimed at council. In the new council’s first in-chambers meeting (its inaugural meeting was in the Belmont Secondary gym) the camera has a wider angle and now shows staff who are seated at the table.

  • What we’d like to see: The pandemic forced Langford (and many other municipalities) to video cast their council meetings, which has been a huge improvement for accessible local governance. The new platform Langford uses to display its agenda and the video is great. Improvements we’d like to see are a camera setup that clearly identifies the speaker, and for videos to also be posted outside of the Langford website.

First place: Colwood

Our winning council meets every second and fourth Monday at 6:30pm. The thing that put Colwood over the top is how clear their video recordings are: speakers are clearly visible, the audio is clear, and the videos are posted right away for the benefit of anyone not able to watch live.

  • Promptly available—5 Videos are posted almost immediately to the civil portal Colwood uses for all committee meetings.

  • Easy to find—4 The portal is clunky to navigate, but videos are also available on Colwood’s YouTube account.

  • Audio—5 Great set up where everyone has a mic, and there is almost no distracting ambient noise interference.

  • Visual—5 Colwood is the only Westshore municipality with a camera setup that narrows in on the speaker, whether a councillor, staff speaker, or a member of the public. We love it!

  • What we’d like to see: The only thing Colwood is missing is time-stamped links to agenda items in the video.