Local government peak will seek exemptions to a new code that requires NSW’s councils to webcast proceedings.
The new model code of practice, announced last week, will require all NSW councils or committees to broadcast meetings, via video or audio, within 12 months of the meeting.
But the announcement has been met with pushback from councils, with the Local Government NSW president Cr Linda Scott telling Government News on Tuesday that councils will be engaging with the State Government to see compliance with the code made voluntary.
“Councils should have the freedom to set their own meeting parameters, including assessing the feasibility of webcasting,” she said.
“Councils need to work with the state to ensure we have financial sustainability and the announcement of a new meeting code of conduct is ill-timed and ill-judged.”
Cr Scott said that while councils are always looking for opportunities to be more transparent and accountable they should be given the “freedom to make decisions in the best interests of the community and not constrained by a one-size-fits-all code.”
Such codes work well as a guide but compulsory models do not recognise the diversity of the state’s 128 councils or what’s best for their communities, she said.
Cr Scott also said it was extremely concerning the state was effectively clamping down on what mayors and councillors could and could not discuss in mayoral minutes.
“It’s better for the community when councils can – within the law – consider topics they consider relevant to their communities and not have topics constrained by a State Government.”
But Roberta Ryan, director at the Institute of Public Policy and Governance, says the requirement of compulsory webcasting under the new code is good news for the public.
She said her research indicated that greater transparency around local government administration improves public trust in government.
“As a general principle of course it’s a great idea to make the public administration of public services accessible to everyone,” she told Government News.
Professor Ryan said the new code will not only enable greater public access for those that are increasingly time poor but will also mean that council meetings, which she says can often become informal, are expected to be more formal.
“An increasing focus on professionalism and professional behaviour and enhancing the way councillors talk to each other and staff is all a good thing.”
Cr Scott argued that there are other more pressing concerns for the state’s councils, like the drought, a waste crisis and a funding shortfall for public facilities, which all need to be addressed.
“In a time of state-wide drought, councils are working hard to focus on delivering infrastructure and services to their communities, not minutiae about meeting procedure.”
Professor Ryan agreed that the timing of the new code is “problematic.”
“It’s a difficult time in terms of dealing with issues around disasters and droughts and a lot of local governments are looking to improve their technological interface. We’ve done work on how tech savvy senior executives in local government are it’s a pretty mixed picture,” Professor Ryan said.
There are also concerns that the new code will add financial strain to councils.
“This is another expense that leaves councils no choice other than to raise rates or divert funds from existing programs to make webcasting happen,” Cr Scott argued.
Rural and regional councils with inadequate internet services have flagged serious concerns over the requirement to webcast meetings, she said.
Similarly, Professor Ryan said the financial burden of webcasting could also mark another constraint for some councils, particularly those in rural and regional areas.
“For councils with more constrained finances or lower capacity, which are often more remote and rural councils, this is just another burden,” she said.
The Office of Local Government says the new code would make council proceedings more transparent, efficient and accessible while also promoting more modern and consistent meeting practices between councils across the state.
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