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Council meetings and the coronavirus pandemic

Posted by James Neilson on 5 May 2020
Council meetings and the coronavirus pandemic

Is your Council availing itself of new legislative options for Council meetings held during the coronavirus pandemic?

Background

A public health emergency has been declared in Queensland in relation to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).  Councils must confront new legal challenges that stem from the emergency.  This article addresses public attendance at Council meetings during the emergency.

Issues

Is it lawful for the public to leave their principal place of residence to attend Council meetings during the emergency?

Is it lawful for Councils to exclude the public from Council meetings during the emergency?

Considerations

Under section 362B of the Public Health Act 2005 ("Public Health Act"), to assist in containing, or to respond to, the spread of COVID-19 within the community, the Chief Health Officer may give any of the following public health directions:

  • a direction restricting the movement of persons;
  • a direction requiring persons to stay at or in a stated place;
  • a direction requiring persons not to enter or stay at or in a stated place;
  • a direction restricting contact between persons;
  • any other direction the Chief Health Officer considers necessary to protect public health.

On 26 April 2020, the Chief Health Officer issued the Home Confinement, Movement and Gathering Direction (No. 2) ("Direction").  Under the Direction, a person who resides in Queensland may only leave their principal place of residence for a limited number of permitted purposes.

Attending a Council office to observe a Council meeting is not a permitted purpose.  Members of the public are not permitted to leave their principal place of residence for the purpose of attending a Council meeting while the Direction is in force.  Those who do so commit an offence.

But does a Council have the power to exclude members of the public from Council meetings during the emergency?

Normally, pursuant to section 274 of the Local Government Regulation 2012 ("Regulation") a Council meeting is open to the public unless Council has resolved that the meeting is to be closed.  New provisions have been included in the Regulation to minimise serious risks to the health and safety of persons caused by the emergency, including in the context of Council meetings.

Section 277E of the Regulation entitles the chairperson of a Council meeting to close the meeting if the chairperson is satisfied that it is not practicable for the public to attend due to the emergency.

Also, a Council may now hold a Council meeting by teleconferencing, and the chairperson of the meeting may allow a person to take part in the meeting by teleconferencing.  In that event, Council is required to ensure that the meeting is available for real-time viewing or listening by the public at 1 of Council's public offices or on its website. 

Implications

As the public are not permitted to leave their principal place of residence for the purpose of attending a Council office to view, or listen to, a Council meeting in real-time, Councils may opt to adopt teleconferencing for Council meetings. 

The chairperson of a Council meeting may also decide, by notice published on Council's website, that the meeting be closed to the public, but only if the chairperson is satisfied that it is not practicable for the public to attend the meeting for health and safety reasons associated with the coronavirus pandemic. 

The obligation to ensure that a Council meeting, held by teleconferencing, is available for real-time viewing or listening by the public, does not apply if the meeting is closed, in the normal manner, under the Regulation, section 275, for example, to discuss business for which a public discussion would be likely to prejudice the interests of Council or someone else.

For further details in relation to the pandemic specific Council meeting provisions, please contact James Neilson of this office, or call (07) 3243 0000.

James NeilsonAuthor: James Neilson
About: James is a partner in the firm's Commercial & Advisory Group.
Tags: Local Government Legislation

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