South Wairarapa among local councils moving online

1:05 pm on 30 March 2020

South Wairarapa District Council is hastening plans to put meetings online after concerns were raised over transparency as the Covid-19 crisis locked down people's movements.

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Council and central government rules have been loosened to help give the public a window into their decision-making process.

Across the country, local authority meetings have been cancelled, forced to go behind closed doors, or hastily arranged during the virus emergency.

Amendments to the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act rushed through last week mean a little more flexibility can be used.

The changes allow representatives to meet remotely during the Level 4 pandemic response alert, using phones or video conferencing.

South Wairarapa District Council held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to change quorum rules, and institute a special committee during the outbreak.

An emergency committee, composed of at least two councillors, was agreed, down from five.

The council's standing orders already allowed votes by phone or video conferencing.

But the rule changes will help if councillors and staff are restricted from making meetings in person.

It had recently moved full council meetings back to new council chambers in Martinborough.

This ended the rotation of meetings around Featherston, Greytown and Martinborough.

Video conference equipment was set to be tested this month with a view to broadcasting meetings online, and allowing for contributions from councillors and public who could not attend in person.

But the drastic measures introduced last week, including the level 4 alert, which encourages all New Zealanders to remain indoors, mean further changes need to be made.

Meetings had been moved back to Martinborough Town Hall to help achieve physical distancing.

The district council's chief executive, Harry Wilson, said work was already underway to make broadcasts available after meetings then progress to public live-streaming.

"Of course, that was before Covid-19, when all councillors could sit in the council chambers together.

"We are now making plans to join councillors at home by video-conferencing, and provide a window to the public to see the decision-making in action."

Wilson said council IT suppliers were setting-up employees and councillors for remote working and details about streams for council meetings would be released "in due course".

Work needed to lessen the spread of Covid-19 will take priority.

The district council's next scheduled meeting, its first under emergency committee rules, is set for Thursday 2 April.

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