19 Mar 2020

Council leaders seek special dispensation over attending meetings

11:44 am on 19 March 2020

Local government leaders want councillors to be excused from turning up in person to meetings in recognition of the likely disruption of the Covid 19 virus.

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Local Government New Zealand Dave Cull says councils were being proactive. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Councils are legally required to meet a quorum before meetings go ahead, but that may not be possible if the situation gets worse.

The Society of Local Government Managers and Local Government New Zealand have met with the Department of Internal Affairs seeking clarification about the practicalities and legalities of running councils if the Covid-19 becomes more widespread.

Society chief executive Karen Thomas said quorums were one of the things it raised with Internal Affairs.

"As we work through this pandemic we may not be able to have council quorums meeting in person so we're wanting to know if we can use people Zooming in or on some kind of teleconference for that, but under the current legislation we can't."

Thomas said it might also be necessary to relax other statutory obligations of councils.

"The 20-day timelines for Local Government Official Information Act requests, for building consents, for resource management consents and while we are completely supportive of those sort of timeframes in normal times, these are not normal times.

"And we want to know what parameters there may be for some kind of relaxation of that."

Thomas said the society was setting up a national unit to co-ordinate council responses to the virus and help to keep essential services such as roads, sewerage systems and drinking water operational.

Local Government New Zealand, Dave Cull, said councils were being proactive and he expected core services to be maintained, but admitted some nice-to-haves may have to close.

"It may be that councils will look at closing libraries and swimming pools for instance where there are likely to be lots of people in close contact, but that all goes back to directives and the implications of the directives from the Ministry of Health.

South Taranaki Mayor Phil Nixon said the quorum issue could be a problem, but that was out of his council's hands.

In the meantime, he said it had put its pandemic plan in place.

"We're just checking how we can work remotely if we need to with any staff and how we can absolutely keep our essential services running like water, wastewater and stormwater and then obviously roading and working with telcos on communications."

Nixon said at this stage council meetings were going ahead and its facilities remained open, but shared toys, for example, have been removed from the district's libraries.

Porirua City Mayor Anita Baker said its meetings were going ahead as usual and she envisaged the council having few problems meeting its statutory obligations.

Its public venues were also open.

Baker said people need to chill out a little.

"Just stop the panic buying. The food's still here, the toilet paper's still here. We're going to be able to shop.

"I think everyone just needs to relax a bit more and just be careful. Just wash your hands a little more than you normal would do."

Internal Affairs and the Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta, were unable to comment.

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