Democracy in South Somerset continues despite Coronavirus outbreak
As the impact of coronavirus has affected our daily lives, so has it also affected the decision making at South Somerset District Council.
Councils run democratically: there are procedures to follow in terms elected councillors voting on key decisions at public meetings and when the Government first announced that we should practice social distancing, it was quickly recognised that this would affect our public meetings.
At the same time, Government urged councils to continue with as much business as possible, including supporting vulnerable groups and ensuring that important functions that have an economic impact such as planning, licensing, building control and environmental health continue to be delivered as close to normal as possible.
Have any meetings been held where you practiced social distancing?
A Full Council meeting was held on 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.
We have a total of 60 elected councillors here in South Somerset; 27 attended the meeting.
How has SSDC overcome difficulties in making decisions whilst practising social distancing?
At the March Full Council meeting, an urgent report was presented to all councillors to transfer all decision making powers to the Chief Executive, in consultation with the Leader of the Council (or Deputy) and the relevant Portfolio Holder, Ward Member and Committee Member if practicable as Committee meetings were suspended.
This decision was approved by councillors. The Council’s Constitution to temporarily transfer decision making to the Chief Executive was changed.
Councillors still continue to receive decision-making reports and are now meeting virtually using Zoom teleconferencing technology to debate the reports. They will form a view, including voting on matters where appropriate, which 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.
Will using Zoom videoconferencing be the new normal going forward?
During such times as the coronavirus outbreak, the Government 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, we have postponed six Council meetings but we’ve been using that time wisely to train councillors in effectively using Zoom as a communication tool. With thanks to two IT experts from Yeovil College, we have successfully managed to train the majority in Zoom virtual meeting software.
When is the first Zoom Council meeting and how can I watch?
We are ready to ‘go live’ with Council meetings, with the first Informal Area South Committee meeting taking place on Wednesday 8 April at 2pm. This will run as close to the normal format of an area committee meeting as possible.
Absolutely anyone with an internet connection can view and listen in to our virtual Council meetings.
We are asking the public to pre-register their interest to speak by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. This will enable us to manage the meeting. Although this is a small change to our open meeting policy, it is not unusual for Councils to request this.
Each meeting has an identifying number and password which are printed in the agendas and they will change for each meeting. Like this:-
Meeting ID: 775 475 691
Meeting Password: 016384
(Please note this is only an example and the meeting ID and password will be different for each meeting).
So, please join us. We will ask that you mute your microphones and turn off your video camera during the meeting to reduce background noise although you will be able to see and hear all the Councillors.
If you have registered to speak, the Chairman will invite you to turn on your video camera, if you wish, when you speak.
If these meetings are successful, will you continue with virtual meetings?
This depends on Government and any changes to legislation that they make. But currently as more of us are working at home, including the majority of SSDC staff, we hope the on-line accessibility of our Committee meetings will mean that more of the public will join us and become engaged with local democracy.
The Government have now published Regulations allowing virtual meetings to become decision making, however, for a short while, as we get used to the new on-line style of meeting, they will be consultative meetings.
What about the scrutiny of decisions that are made? Does the Scrutiny Committee still perform their role?
Although we have a new temporary process for how decisions are taken at South Somerset District Council 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.