As of Oct. 31, councillors, Sarnia’s mayor and committee appointees will need to be fully vaccinated and show proof to attend in-person council and committee meetings whenever they resume.
Council voted 5-3 in favour of the new policy on Sept. 13, moved by Coun. Mike Stark.
“It is important that elected officials provide leadership to the local population, so that all all citizens understand the urgency for immunization as we face the fourth wave of COVID-19 and its related (variants),” Stark said in a prepared statement, noting Lambton’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Christopher Greensmith, has called for all employers to enact similar policies.
Those not fully vaccinated would still be allowed to participate in council meetings virtually – as council has been doing since shortly after pandemic restrictions took effect in 2020 – Stark’s motion said. Virtual council meetings have been permitted by provincial order.
Vaccination exemptions would be allowed for medical and human rights reasons, Stark added.
The policy also does not restrict a councillor from performing their duties, city solicitor David Logan noted.
“The motion, as I read it, is simply that they would have to participate not in person, so via Zoom or some other form,” he said before the vote.
“So we do not see anything outside of the law or an attempt to move a councillor off of the council. It’s just the form of method by which they’d be participating.”
Potential amendments may be required if the provincial order allowing virtual council meetings ends, he said, noting the city isn’t aware of any expiration date.
A motion recently adopted by Lambton County council that allows the continued use of Zoom for delegations and councillors once in-camera meetings resume could solve that problem if adopted in Sarnia as well, he said.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said he plans to bring a motion to council’s next meeting in October.
“So the issue may be addressed at that point in time in any event,” Logan said in an email.
The motion follows Sarnia recently announcing similar vaccination requirement rules for employees, students, volunteers and consultants.
Under that policy, staff who don’t get both vaccine doses or decline to disclose their vaccination status will have to complete a vaccine education program and be tested regularly, Logan said recently.
The policy took effect Sept. 13 and the first “notable date for compliance” is Sept. 23, he said.
Several on council suggested the policy would only apply to Coun. Margaret Bird. All elected officials except Bird who spoke at the meeting said they were fully vaccinated.
Calling into question the authority of the medical officer of health in Lambton, Bird called the policy “bullying, harassing and discriminatory.”
“It is just another unthinkable request to unethically impose this vaccination and to split humanity into two groups,” she said.
Councillors are not employees, she said, while claiming the policy goes against diversity, equity and inclusion training all of council agreed to earlier this year.
“I definitely will not be supporting this unconstitutional, divisive and unethical motion,” she said.
It’s not council’s place to put restraints on members, Coun. Bill Dennis said, adding he thinks virtual meetings are less effective than in-person meetings.
“By mandating virtual attendance, we are reducing the effectiveness of a councillor,” he said.
Coun. Dave Boushy, who voted against the policy with Dennis and Bird, moved for a delay to get a report back from staff. No one on council seconded his motion.
Coun. Nathan Colquhoun was absent for the vote.
Coun. Brian White said adopting the policy lets council show solidarity with city hall employees, noting he believes in vaccination to protect himself and others in the community.
Council should continue meeting virtually if any one member doesn’t comply with the policy, he said, “so that we’re not centering anybody out.”
It’s important for council to show leadership and promote vaccination, but also show they understand the need to protect rights, Mayor Mike Bradley said, agreeing with Boushy the policy should have been to referred to staff first for a report.
“But I believe the message should be clear as leaders that we support double vaccination,” he said.
No target date has been set for a return to in-person council meetings, he said.
Stark, in his motion, also called for a more robust vaccination policy at city hall with no option for regular testing as a substitution.
He also called for Lambton County council to adopt a similar policy.