The NSW Government has cleared a path for council meetings to be held online, with the Victorian Government now facing similar pressure to act.
In NSW, the changes are contained in an emergency measures bill, which passed both houses of NSW parliament by Tuesday evening.
The bill packaged up a large number of proposed law changes to deal with COVID-19, but from a technology perspective covered an anticipated rise in the use of audio visual conferencing in court cases and council sittings.
On councils, they “removed the need for persons to attend council meetings”, according to explanatory notes. [pdf]
“The meetings may be held remotely by audio visual link or in any other manner approved by the Minister for Local Government.
“Members of the public are to be given access to the meeting by webcast or in any other manner approved by the Minister.
“The provision applies for a minimum period of six months and may apply for a total of 12 months if the regulations prescribe a longer period.”
Local Government NSW (LGNSW) president Linda Scott expressed gratitude that NSW local government minister Shelley Hancock “had responded quickly to LGNSW’s advocacy on the need to allow councils to hold official meetings electronically, rather than physically.”
LGNSW is the peak body representing councils in the state.
“In a pandemic, governance by elected representatives is an essential service,” Cr Scott said.
“We welcome the Minister’s agreement to support Local Government NSW’s calls to enable councils that can do so to meet via audio visual links, and make a webcast of the meeting available to the public.
“The NSW Government must ensure all councils, including those unable to meet these new requirements, will be able to urgently obtain approval for alternative arrangements to enable them to meet.
“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.”
Peak bodies in other states are mounting similar campaigns seeking legislative changes.
The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) today called on the Victorian Government “to urgently make changes to council meeting requirements to enable meetings to take place online.”
It said the state’s laws currently require councillors “to be physically in attendance at a council meeting in order to participate in council decision-making”.
“If there isn’t a majority of councillors in attendance, councils cannot make a quorum and the meetings cannot proceed,” the MAV said.
Cr Coral Ross, president of the MAV, said, “Inflexible council meeting requirements under state legislation [are] a significant concern for local governments across the country as many council chambers do not allow for appropriate social distancing.”
“This is an unprecedented situation which requires collaboration and innovative thinking,:” Cr Ross said.
“With streaming and virtual meetings now widely available, we call on the Minister for Local Government Adem Somyurek and the State Government to make this common sense decision and enable one of these options to be implemented as an alternative to meeting face to face.”