SSDC tries video democracy
Social distancing rules have put life as we knew it on hold. Many companies have shut down. But how does that impact on local government?
How can decisions be taken safely and still scrutinised by press and public, to say nothing of other councillors.
A Full Council meeting of South Somerset District Council was held 19th March and at this meeting we asked councillors and members of the public to ensure social distancing was observed. Committee Administrators advised all councillors over the age of 70, or those with any underlying health issues to consider if they really needed to attend the meeting.
Despite the problems that by then were evident, 27 of 60 elected councillors managed to attend the meeting.
At the March Full Council meeting, the process of decision making in SSDC was changed.
From that point on all decisions of the council will be made by the Chief Executive albeit he is asked to “consult” with the Leader of the Council (or Deputy) and the relevant Portfolio Holder, Ward Member and Committee Member if practicable. SSDC’s constitution was changed to reflect this.
Councillors still contribute, but in a watered down fashion.
Reports on decisions that need to be made will be sent to them. The relevant committee will meet using Zoom teleconferencing technology to debate the reports. They will form a view, including voting on matters where appropriate.
That view will be communicated to the Chief Executive. The decision will then be formally made by the Chief Executive (or relevant Director) – this is because current legislation states that Councillors must be ‘present and voting’ to cast their vote on an Executive or Quasi-Judicial decision. However the Government in Westminster has indicated that they would relax the regulations which state councillors much be present at a meeting in order for their vote to count on a decision.
So far across a three week period, SSDC have postponed six Council meetings but in between times have trained councillors in using Zoom as a communication tool. With thanks to two IT experts from Yeovil College, who have led the training.
SSDC will go live with a Zoom council meeting today (8 April) at 2pm. This is the Area South Committee which will run as close to the normal format of an area committee meeting as possible. The public can attend via the Zoom facility as long as they can access the internet. Agendas are available on the website and they include an invitation for the public to join on-line through Zoom at: https://zoom.us/join You’ll need a meeting ID and meeting password and these will be printed in the agenda.
Although SSDC have made these operational changes during the pandemic, the Overview and Scrutiny Committee are still operating as usual. This Committee has a statutory responsibility to hold decision makers to account and seeks to ensure that decisions are open and transparent, based on sound and robust evidence and in the interests of the South Somerset community.