Virtual council meetings allowed for another six months

Footage from Georges River Council's virtual meeting last month.
Footage from Georges River Council's virtual meeting last month.

The NSW Government has authorised local councils to hold official meetings electronically instead of physically for a further six months as communities continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The regulatory extension means councils have the ability to continue to meet electronically until March 25 next year.

Local Government Minister, Shelley Hancock said virtual meetings have been instrumental in ensuring the State's 128 councils continue to function while minimising the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

"Over the past six months our councils have had the ability to hold official meetings by electronic means to protect councillors, staff and members of the public from COVID-19," Mrs Hancock said.

"With councillors debating and determining important community issues at council meetings, it's been vital that this decision making process has continued.

"During the height of the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of the State's 128 local councils held virtual meetings, with many councils still choosing to meet electronically.

"Importantly public access to electronic meetings is guaranteed with councils required to livestream them so local residents can tune in and keep a recording online for at least 12 months."

Last month Georges River Council deputy mayor, Councillor Con Hindi lodged a Notice of Motion asking that "in order to maintain the good reputation of Georges River Council in relation to openness and transparency, Council permit the public to attend Council meetings similar to the arrangement that Bayside Council has adopted with particular attention being paid to social distancing and the current public health orders."

Cr Hindi said that residents were concerned that their submissions to the council were read out by a third party rather than by themselves meaning that councillors may not always get the full intent of the message.

Residents said that other councils have made concessions with their meetings. Sutherland allows ten attendees, with 34 others being admitted into a separate area to watch the webcast. The Hills Shire allows 24 attendees and speakers. Randwick's holding its meetings off-site to allow sufficient space with the speaker allowed to address Council and other residents can watch from the foyer. Northern Beaches allows speakers into the chambers.

But the United Services Union general secretary Graeme Kelly expressed his concerns on behalf of Georges River Council staff.

"Such a step would be premature, placing staff required to attend these meets at an unnecessary risk," Mr Kelly said.

The council decided to continue its virtual meeting meetings but allowing the public to make submissions remotely via audio/ visual link.

A council report said: "From July 2020, Bayside Council commenced holding meetings of Council at Rockdale Town Hall in order to enable limited public attendance and comply with social distancing guidelines and NSW Public Health Orders.

"Up to fifteen (15) members of the public could now attend a Council meeting at the Town Hall. However, consistent with the NSW Public Health Order relating to public gatherings, OLG Circulars relating to non-essential meetings and WHS regulations, Bayside Council is actively discouraging personal attendance by members of the public and is instead, providing the public (speakers) with the opportunity to participate remotely through Microsoft Teams or have their address read out by staff.

"Therefore, as a result of this arrangement no members of the public have personally attended any Bayside Council meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Since April 2020 Georges River Council has expended approximately $30,000 on upgrading software, audio visual and other equipment, and installing permanent changes to meeting rooms to enable Council meetings to continue to be held within the Georges River Civic Centre building during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

"This expenditure has enabled Council to ensure the business conducted at its meetings continues to be open and transparent whilst also complying at all times with the NSW Public Health Orders, Federal Government health guidelines, OLG Circulars and relevant WHS legislation.

"Notwithstanding this, to enhance existing arrangements, Council could offer a similar service to Bayside Council by providing the opportunity for registered speakers to participate remotely via Council's Skype broadcast.

"The majority of metropolitan Councils are not currently permitting members of the public to attend Council meetings in person at this time. Georges River Council is currently applying a similar restriction to ensure the safety of Councillors and Council Officers is prioritised at all times."