Wednesday, May 29, 2024
May 29, 2024

Trustees ditch Zoom for 2024 council meets

As many local and regional governments anticipate tax rate increases in the double digits for 2024, the Islands Trust says it will certainly look for savings — but not in the costs of holding meetings. 

The Islands Trust Council (ITC) has made plans to meet 100 per cent in-person in the coming year, choosing locations in Nanaimo and Victoria, as well as on Salt Spring Island and at one yet-to-be-determined island venue. ITC has met quarterly for decades — and agreed in 2024 to continue with tradition, meeting in March, June, September and December for three days each time.  

The decision to skip virtual meetings was not unanimous, and the split vote reflected some differences in opinion over the intrinsic value of meeting face-to-face — as costs for travel, accommodation and food have risen. Earlier this year, the Trust’s Financial Planning Committee (FPC) asked staff to brief them on the “true costs” difference between holding ITC meetings online via Zoom versus in-person, and administrative services director Clare Frater delivered, presenting a review of the last eight meetings — five in-person, and three via Zoom — from as far back as the ITC’s Nanaimo meeting in March of 2022. 

One unsurprising finding was that in-person meetings are generally more expensive; but the difference — and, some trustees argued, the potential for budget savings — was eye-opening. With accommodation, catering, meals and travel expenses, bringing the council together for an in-person meeting cost an average of $31,300 for each event— or more than $10,000 per day for a typical three-day gathering. 

The average Zoom meeting cost just $900.  

“I would suggest we have all Zoom meetings,” said Saturna trustee Mairead Boland at ITC’s December meeting. “I suspect most people won’t support that. But we need to challenge those costs.” 

The FPC had already defeated a motion brought by Denman Island trustee David Graham in October to recommend ITC hold all meetings in the next fiscal cycle remotely, and another asking staff to bring ITC a consideration of options to reduce in-person meeting costs. Instead, through a motion by Tobi Elliott, the committee requested the briefing be attached to the ITC’s December agenda packet “to support discussion.” Elliott reminded colleagues they had “lost staff because [they] had such a stressful Pender Island meeting.” 

Some trustees bristled at the idea the costs were excessive. At the ITC meeting, Gambier Local Trust Area trustee Joe Bernardo, who lives on Keats Island, pointed out the $31,300 number sits against a backdrop of a nearly $10 million budget. 

“It costs money to have legislators come together to meet and discuss,” said Bernardo. “It’s just a cost of doing business, and we don’t need to apologize for it.” 

And at the October FPC meeting, council chair and Thetis Island trustee Peter Luckham had defended the meetings’ overhead. 

“We’re not frivolous,” said Luckham at that meeting. “We’re not drinking champagne and eating caviar. In fact, quite often we do eat sandwiches. Outside of us all bringing our own lunches, I’m not sure where you can save money, because it just simply costs money to cater.” 

There was some discussion about whether Local Trust Committee (LTC) chairs and others who need to travel to those meetings might be able to attend remotely — for cost savings, but also for the sake of trustees’ travel time. Trustee Tim Peterson, who takes multiple ferries between his home on Lasqueti Island and his work chairing Hornby, Galiano and Salt Spring Island LTC meetings, said that while having the option to attend remotely can be helpful, it needs to be left to individual trustees’ discretion when to choose to be in-person. 

“I wouldn’t be comfortable, for example, not being in-person at the Salt Spring LTC special meetings,” Peterson told colleagues, as managing often lively town hall meetings is challenging enough in-person. “I think there’s cases where not being there in-person might be fine, but I wouldn’t have been comfortable trying to chair those [town hall meetings] not being in the room.” 

The ITC schedule shows 2024 meetings will be held March 12-13 in Nanaimo, June 18-20 on Salt Spring Island, Sept. 24-26 on a yet-to-be-determined island, and Dec. 3-5 in Victoria. The Islands Trust budget will be finalized in March. 

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  1. A balance between Zoom and face-to-face would be a solution to both cost cutting measures and convenience which appeals to all.


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