In its last sitting before adjourning prior to the COVID-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown, Parliament introduced the COVID-19 Response (Urgent Management Measures) Legislation Bill (Bill). The Bill gained royal assent on 25 March 2020, and amends the Education Act 1989, the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, the Local Government Act 2002 (LGA), the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (LGOIMA), and the Residential Tenancies Act 1986.
This update focuses on the changes to the LGA and the LGOIMA, in relation to holding meetings through audio or audiovisual link, and amendments regarding public access and posting of agendas.
Many councils and council committees experienced difficulties holding meetings by means of audio or audiovisual link, following the Government's directive for people to work remotely where possible. Even where council's standing orders permitted attendance by means of audio or audiovisual link, a local authority member must be physically present in order to form part of a quorum, which in the present climate is obviously problematic.
Accordingly, the Bill introduces a new clause 25B, which applies while the epidemic notice for COVID-19 remains in place. This provides for members to attend a meeting by audio or audiovisual link, despite anything to the contrary in a council or committee's standing orders, and that members attending by audio or audiovisual link are to be counted as present for the purposes of a quorum.
Civil Defence Emergency Management Groups (which are established as joint standing committees under the LGA) will also benefit from these changes, particularly now that NZ's Civil Defence Minister, Hon Peeni Henare, has declared a State of National Emergency.
The Bill also amends the LGOIMA, so that while the epidemic notice for COVID-19 remains in place, a local authority can post the required copies of agendas and associated reports on its website, rather than at its public offices. The same process applies in respect of meeting minutes.
In addition, while the epidemic notice for COVID-19 remains in place, meetings can be "open to the public" either by livestreaming the meeting (as many councils already do), by making an audio or video recording of the meeting, or by making a written summary of the business conducted, available on the council's website as soon as practicable after the meeting ends, free of charge.
These amendments ensure that local authorities can continue to conduct business in an open, transparent manner while still enabling participation by the public, albeit in a different format, during a time of significant uncertainty.
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