Electronic council meetings are now permitted in NSW to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading.
In a circular to councils issued on Wednesday the Office of Local Government said amendments to the Local Government Act meant that councils are now able to meet remotely using audio visual technology, subject to review after six months.
Government News understands OLG had been approached by many councils who were concerned about holding meetings in the current risk climate.
The act had previously required councillors to attend meetings in person but this put them in breach of the recent public health order banning indoor gatherings of more than 100 people.
OLG says the new arrangements don’t take away the obligation for councillors to manage conflicts of interest and protect confidential information considered at the meeting.
Councillors will also have to make sure that if meetings are closed to the public they participate in a location where they can’t be seen or heard by anyone else.
Guidance on livestreaming meetings can be found here.
Times of crisis
Speaking to Government News prior to the announcement, LGNSW President Linda Scott said it was important for councils to meet remotely in times of crisis.
“Councils must make decisions about their budgets, a range of other fees, services, charges, infrastructure issues, and therefore it’s vital that ordinary council meetings can proceed,” she said
On Wednesday she said the decision was welcome.
“Overall this is a sensible move that recognises the need to protect local democracy, transparency and accountability to voters while also aligning with appropriate social distancing guidelines.”
Cr Scott also called on the state government to ensure all councils, including those that were unable to to meet livestream requirements, could obtain approval for alternative arrangements to enable them to meet.
Local government in times of crisis
Cr Scott said the state’s recent experience of bushfires, floods and now the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted how important local councils are in responding to emergencies.
“We’ve seen, over the summer, the best responses to bushfires, droughts and floods were those that were led locally,” she told Government News.
“That’s why councils were so well prepared to manage and lead local responses to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Councils continued to play an important role in disaster response and management with services like Meals on Wheels, cleaning and waste, and recycling, as well as disseminating public health messages and emergency warnings.
“It’s terrible that it’s taken such alarming natural disasters or a pandemic to highlight the strengths of local government and local responses,” Cr Scott said. “But it is the case that these local decisions have shown to be able to chart a better future away from disaster and into recovery for communities across the nation.”
Councils have not seen anything like this before, she said.
“In the living memory of mayors, councilors and local government staff, this certainly is unique. It’s a unique set of global circumstances that is bringing us together to work more closely with our neighbours, communities and state and federal governments.”
Putting local government in the stimulus picture
To further support local government now and into the recovery phase, she said she would like state and federal governments to include local government in future stimulus packages.
During the Global Financial Crisis, one of the most successful and effective elements of the national economic stimulus package was funding to local councils, Cr Scott said.
“This funding led to a legacy of infrastructure for the public good – more parks, libraries, sporting fields, toilet blocks,” she said.
“If state governments provide economic stimulus to councils, it has an evidence-based significantly beneficial economic effect,” Ms Scott said.
“And it keeps people employed and leaves a legacy of public infrastructure for the public to benefit from.”
Local Government Association of Queensland has echoed the calls. LGAQ CEO Greg Hallam says the focus should be on the economy to protect and create jobs to help mitigate impacts of the pandemic.
“Councils stand at the ready to deliver that stimulus to communities across the state and the country,” he said in a statement.
“Councils have the ability to get the rubber on the road very quickly. We are shovel ready and we have a proud history of delivery.”
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