Shire’s backflip on meetings

Shire’s backflip on meetings

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A decision by the Serpentine Jarrahdale Shire President to hold this month’s council meeting electronically, after a unanimous council decision in April to return to in-person meetings, has prompted one elected member to urge the Shire to seek legal advice.

In the council meeting of April 11, council voted unanimously to return to in-person meetings, following two months of electronic meetings that prevented public attendance.

On May 12, a post on the SJ Shire Facebook page stated the upcoming meeting would be closed to the public – a backflip on a post made days earlier on May 9 announcing the meeting would be held in-person and open to the public. That post has since been deleted.

The May 12 post stated:

“On 12 May 2022, in accordance with Regulation 14D of the Local Government (Administration) Regulations 1996, and following consultation with the CEO, the Shire President has determined that there being a public health emergency in the district of the local government; and because of that public health emergency, it is appropriate for the Ordinary Council Meeting on Monday 16 May to be held by electronic means (owing to the increase in reported COVID-19 cases in the State following the lifting of public health restrictions).”

Regulation 14D gives the President or Council the authority to hold a meeting via electronic means “if a public health emergency or state of emergency exists and because of this, the President or Council considers it appropriate.”

While the Shire did not provide specific answers to questions from Examiner Newspapers regarding the decision, including how many members of council or staff had contracted COVID-19, it said the Shire President’s decision was due to the rise in positive COVID-19 cases in the state in the past week; the lifting of public health restrictions which meant the Shire could not mandate mask-wearing; the decision of the State Government (made on May 10) to extend the State of Emergency by six months; and the views of councillors about returning to in-person meetings at the May 2 Policy Concept Forum and May 11 Q&A.

The announcement was met with mixed responses in the Facebook comments, including Councillor Rob Coales suggesting he would seek legal advice over the decision.

“Why can we attend mass gatherings like the football but not attend a council meeting,” Cr Coales said.

Other commenters questioned why an electronic meeting could not be attended by the public online.

In March the Shire President said that livestreaming electronic council meetings to the public was not an option, despite other councils doing so.

“Live events allow one speaker at a time to speak which is determined by a person assigned in the system as the producer,” Cr Rich said in March.

“This is ideal for conferences or webinars which have a schedule or plan for who is going to speak in order, but not suitable for a Council meeting environment where discussion is free-flowing.

“Technology in this area is rapidly evolving and the Shire continues to look for technological solutions that have the varied functionality required, including the capacity to live-stream.

“The public is able to continue to participate in Council meetings by submitting their public questions and statements prior to the meeting,” Cr Rich said.