Squamish council ultimately voted down a bylaw that could have seen fewer statutory public notices in the local print newspaper's pages.
Statutory public notices are legally required announcements of municipal information that are of public interest, including public meetings, elections, public hearings, dispositions of land, and adoptions of some bylaws or bylaw amendments.
The current bylaw says public notices are to be published in a print newspaper once a week for two consecutive weeks, or if publication by newspaper is impractical then the notice may be published by alternative means.
On Sept. 5, at a regular business meeting, Kerri Wells, municipal director of corporate administration, introduced a bylaw that would have allowed the municipality to change how they notify the public of certain things. Ultimately, the bylaw did not pass as council was deadlocked at 3-3. Coun. Eric Andersen was absent from the meeting.
The bylaw stemmed from the provincial Bill 26 receiving royal assent, which amended the Local Government Act and Community Charter to allow municipal governments to adopt a bylaw that specified at least two alternative means to publish legal public notices.
“Local governments that regularly have to use alternative means because publication by newspaper is not practical may want to consider adopting a public notice bylaw so the public consistently knows where to find public notice(s) in the community,” reads guidance material on the change from the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
If the bylaw recommended by District staff had passed, it would have allowed the muni to publish statutory public notices in two of three places: a print newspaper, the District’s website, and the District’s newsletter, and to do so at least seven days in advance of a public hearing.
Meaning, these legal public notices would have appeared in The Squamish Chief — as the only print newspaper in town — once, rather than twice as is the current practice.
The intention of having two of three options was to ensure the District could still go ahead with the matter at hand, if one of the three sources was unavailable. The bylaw did not take away any methods of printing public notices or disallow all three or more methods of publication to be used.
“We intend to actually do all three,” said Wells. “This gives us the flexibility when one of those options might not be available.”
The staff report about the bylaw noted that The Squamish Chief had reduced direct distribution of the newspaper to some homes, but were told the organization will continue to circulate approximately 6,500 copies through other means, including community boxes.
A letter submitted to the District from Sarah Strother, publisher of The Squamish Chief, stated this was “largely an environmental decision” to follow plastic bag bylaw and reduce waste. Moreover, Strother added that The Squamish Chief’s website metrics outperformed the District’s.
“In the footnote, it states that the District’s website had just over 69,000 page views and 25,945 total users in the period from July 20 to August 16, 2023. In contrast, www.squamishchief.com had 446,532 page views and 110,417 total users in the same July 20 to August 16, 2023 time frame,” she wrote.
“While we understand the intent to adopt the bylaw and provide alternative means of public notice, we maintain that The Squamish Chief newspaper and our website, www.squamishchief.com, is the leading source for the most reliable and trusted community news and information, the most suitable and widely accessible means of broadcast, and offers the greatest level of transparency that mitigates the District of potential liability risk.”
Mayor Armand Hurford, Coun. Jenna Stoner and Coun. John French voted in favour of the change, whereas Couns. Andrew Hamilton, Lauren Greenlaw and Chris Pettingill voted against the bylaw.
Most council members in support of the change said it would allow the local government to "future proof" in case something happened like a missed printing deadline at the newspaper or District website malfunction, then it gave them other ways of getting out the public notices as they are legislated to do.
“To me, this is not an effort to try and reduce the amount of information that is being shared through our local newspaper,” said Stoner. “It just gives us a little bit of flexibility, if needed, for our statutory public notices.”
For the councillors who voted against the bylaw, only requiring the District publish a statutory public notice in two of the three ways and potentially having less advance notice were some of the shortcomings of the bylaw.
“Two consecutive weeks of newspaper notice, I think is something that's important to our community right now,” said Pettingill.
“According to this bylaw, we wouldn't have to publish in print necessarily and we'd only have to give seven days' notice,” said Greenlaw. “There are a lot of people in our community that rely upon printed newsfeeds and I would like to see that protected in some capacity.”
“I do feel that it is very important to support journalism,” Greenlaw summarized. “It's not just a company, it is a community service.”
View the meeting on the District’s YouTube channel.