Several councils have been enquiring about contingency planning for council meetings, in response to the challenges raised by COVID-19.
LGV has been providing information to councils based on interpretations of the Local Government Act on aspects such as public attendance at meetings, options for online rather than in-person meetings and delegation of authority.
Meetings open to the public: Section 66(1) of the Local Government Act 2020 requires that council meetings be open to the public, unless a circumstance in section 66(2) applies. Section 66(2) states those circumstances are:
- the meeting is to consider confidential information; or
- security reasons; or
- it is necessary to close the meeting to enable the meeting to proceed in an orderly manner
The Act does not provide an opportunity to exempt this requirement.
Those councils that currently stream council meetings are encouraged to promote the availability of this medium as an alternative to attendance in person whilst social distancing is being encouraged.
A council may close a meeting under b) or c) above, provided it enables the meeting to be viewed by the public e.g. streamed on the internet. The term "security" is not defined in the Act but would be broad enough to apply in the current circumstances relating to COVID-19. This section will commence on 1 May. Meanwhile the provisions of the 1989 Act continue to operate.
Councillor attendance at meetings: The Local Government Act 2020 provides that voting at council meetings is undertaken by councillors present at the meeting. ‘Present’ means physically present in the room where the decision making is taking place. As of 30 March, there is no current provision that allows a council to be exempted from this requirement, e.g. allowing presence by electronic means.
It is recommended that attendance at meetings have regard to the Commonwealth Government’s guidance on social distancing and hygiene.
Cancelling or postponing meetings: If a council wishes to cancel or postpone a council or special committee meeting – for example because a quorum cannot be formed due to the absence of councillors - it should give as much public notice as is practicable. Again, there is no capacity to exempt or vary quorum requirements under the Act.
Delegation: To enable continued council operations, councils may wish to consider delegating additional powers, duties and functions to council’s chief executive officer and further sub-delegating to staff. Section 98 of the Act (1989) sets out the requirements for delegating council powers, duties and functions. Councils are encouraged to review their delegations to maximise the opportunity for business continuity.
More details from LGV bulletins are available on the LGV website.