Council functions during the COVID-19 breakout
The COVID-19 outbreak has created challenges for local councils that are looking to take immediate action to protect the community, council staff and essential services. With Federal and State health authority requirements and recommendations changing on a daily basis, there is a lot to consider.
We understand that the key priority for councils is continuity of essential services such as waste collection and other community services. Councils should be holding regular discussions with their key contractors to ensure they are taking an appropriate response.
We understand some councils are working with their waste collection contractors to implement a ‘split team’ arrangement to try to minimise risk to their workforce.
A key issue for councils over the next few months will be how to function and continue to make decisions should they decide to suspend council meetings. Councils will need to continue to make decisions so will need a power to do that if meetings are suspended.
It is not currently open to councils to hold meetings via video conference or by telephone. The mandatory provisions in the Model Code of Meeting Practice established under the Local Government Act 1993 (NSW) state that a councillor cannot participate in a meeting of the council or of a committee of the council unless personally present at the meeting.
Some options for councils to consider at this point if they are still proceeding with meetings:
- Review current delegations and consider whether further delegations to the general manager would assist in the case that councils have to move to suspend meetings in the near future.
- Put in place measures to comply with all requirements and guidance on social distancing at the meeting, noting that the Federal and State health authority requirements and guidance on this are regularly being updated at the moment.
- Council would still need to comply with its obligations under s 10 of the Local Government Act to provide the public with access to its meetings. It is likely Councils are already in the habit of providing video access to their meetings due to the requirement in the model code to webcast council meetings. Councils could look at making this interactive via Skype or social media platforms.
- Look at removing any items from the agenda that can be appropriately dealt with at a later time (to reduce time spent in the chamber).
We understand that some councils are considering suspending meetings. There are limits on councils’ ability to do this, given the requirement in s 365 of the Local Government Act 1993 (NSW) that Council meet at least 10 times each year, each time in a different month – that is, Council can only suspend its meetings under this clause for two months – and this would require it to continue to meet in December and January. We expect the Office of Local Government will come out with further guidance for councils on this and other matters in the immediate future.
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