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Vandenberg wants city council to resume in-person meetings; Mayor says no

George Vandenberg

Coun. George Vandenberg says “nothing good is happening” while council continues to meet virtually.

“It’s fractured, you can’t concentrate, and it denies some members of the public access,” Vandenberg said. “What are we afraid of?”

Council has met virtually on “Zoom” since mid-May for regular council meetings as well as special meetings. And Monday’s council meeting is once again scheduled to be limited to Zoom.  

Mayor Mike Bradley, who chairs the meetings and has the authority to decide how they are held, says health and safety issues raised by the public, city staff and members of council are why he is choosing to keep meetings on Zoom.

An independent investigator is reviewing the health and safety issues, which the mayor did not specify. When asked for details, he said via email that the investigation is about “recent events and incidents on social media and in the council chamber related to a member of council.”

That member of council has never been officially identified. However, Coun. Bill Dennis said in a May 18 social media post that he had been named as a respondent in a workplace harassment complaint.

The mayor said he is at “arm’s length” to the investigation and doesn’t know when it will conclude or when council can return to in-person meetings.

Sarnia City Council special meeting, June 14, 2024.

The city used Zoom to hold meetings during the pandemic, so Zoom is not a new concept, he added.

However, Coun. Vandenberg said he and others are “tired” of Zoom and he isn’t clear on what the investigation is about.

“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t see the purpose,” he said. “I think Bill is a good man and brings a lot of good stuff to council. He really loves the city.”

This week, Coun. Vandenberg emailed his fellow councillors to see if there was support to get back to in-person meetings. 

He said no one replied except Coun. Anne Marie Gillis who said she recognizes the need for council to stay on Zoom.

She told The Journal she is in favour of Zoom meetings for now in order to protect the employee or employees who complained about workplace harassment.

“I’m not happy about being on Zoom but I understand why we need to,” Coun. Gillis said. Council technically has a single employee who works for it and that is CAO Chris Carter, she said.

“And we have a responsibility as a council to keep him safe.”

Eight years ago, when Mayor Mike Bradley was being investigated for allegations of harassment, Zoom wasn’t available. He was ultimately found guilty of harassing and bullying four female staff members, including the city manager.

"In that case, Mayor Bradley didn’t attend council meetings during the investigation so he wasn’t in the same room as the parties who complained," Gillis noted.

“This time, we have a tool (Zoom),” she said. “Zoom gives Coun. Dennis an opportunity to participate and keep the parties separate, so I look at it as a good thing.”

Gillis said she supports a move to Zoom on the large screen in council chambers so those who wish to participate in-person – including the public – can attend and those who don’t want to be in the room can attend virtually.

“There are obviously staffers who can’t be in the room while a harassment investigation is ongoing,” she said.

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