Councils invest in change for public meetings
COVID-19 restrictions changed how local councils communicate with their constituents, prompting a series of upcoming developments to the delivery of public interest information.
Meetings of the Southern Downs Regional Council remain closed to public attendance, in accordance with the Local Government Regulation Act.
The act states the chairman, in this case Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi, must be satisfied that public attendance is not “practicable” given current coronavirus restrictions.
Cr Pennisi acted contrary to neighbouring Goondiwindi Regional Council Mayor Lawrence Springborg and Toowoomba Regional Council Mayor Paul Antonio, who both opted to place attendance limits in order to adhere to restrictions.
Cr Springborg said it was crucial for residents to be able to witness the decisions being made on their behalf.
“We think it’s great if they can turn up and see the business of the council,” he said.
“Part of my consideration was not to restrict people, but rather to allow access within appropriate limits.
“That’s their right, we just need them to adhere to distancing restrictions and we need to calculate how many people we can have in the room.”
Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi was quick to assure residents that the meeting closure was necessary, and did not contradict his election campaign of “trust, transparency and open doors”.
According to SDRC acting director of sustainable development Craig Magnussen, the council is permitted to open the meeting to the public, however chambers in both Warwick and Stanthorpe are too small to achieve social distancing.
The Warwick Town Hall offers a suitably spaced solution, however as the building is classed as a restricted business under the COVID-19 restrictions, a site specific plan must be created in order for the public to gather.
Council staff are currently working to prepare a plan and aim to have it lodged with Queensland Health and ready to go in time for the July council meeting.
In the interim, Cr Pennisi said streaming services would be upgraded in order to better broadcast meetings via Facebook.
“We didn’t often have people sitting in the gallery but now we have upwards of 2000 people watching the meeting, which I think is fantastic,” Cr Pennisi said.
“We want to see that continue.”
The SDRC draft budget allocates $17,000 to the installation of professional audio and video equipment, which is expected to make it easier for residents to see who is speaking and what they are saying.
“We understand that has been a problem, and we are working on it,” Cr Pennisi said.
Two special council meetings, on July 17 and July 18, were not live-streamed to the public, despite discussing matters of budget spending.
SDRC acting chief executive officer Jane Stroud said this was because many of those in attendance had financial “hardships” of a personal nature, and the council wished to protect their privacy.
Ms Stroud advised that council staff were creating a document that would provide “as much information as (they) can” regarding the submissions of public interest, including information regarding the Warwick Rodeo.
The council plans to change how it conducts submission meetings in the future by asking which speakers consent to make their requests public.
In Goondiwindi, the key changes would be made to where council meetings are held.
“We want to start having full council meetings out in our regional centres,” Cr Springborg said.
“We’re looking to start in September in Inglewood, then do March in Texas, and rotate every six months.
“We want to stay connected to our community and invite people to come along and meet us, people really appreciate that.”
The next SDRC council meeting will be held tomorrow. Further information can be found at facebook.com/mysdrc