Fighting for Public Access to Online Local Council meetings

by Uplift

16/02/2021

In the current situation we are living through, so many things have changed – and local governance is one. Because our elected Councillors couldn’t physically meet, there were real barriers on how they would be able to govern. Thankfully, new guidelines were introduced in 2020 that made it clear that local council meetings can and should happen online.

Unbeknownst to many, pre-covid local authorities must provide access for the public to plenary and district council meetings. During Covid-19, this should be no different. Unfortunately, many Uplift members were blocked in accessing their local council meetings that are now happening online and have been left in the dark. We know that the only way for democracy to work for all of us, is if democracy includes us all. As local authorities are autonomous, we must fight for access in each council one by one. That’s why Uplift Campaigner, Michelle, who fought and won for better access to her local council – will share how you can too. 

We make the future by ensuring everyone can access our local governance. Most of us believe that, no matter what we look like or where we live, we should all have access to our democracy and ensure that the leaders we elected are held accountable. 

By joining together as voters in our local area, we will make the future and build a democracy that works for all of us.

How do I know if my Council allows public access to online meetings?

Even pre-Covid times, many of us found it difficult to find out when and where our local council meetings were taking place and how, we as the general public, could attend them. Every council has a different approach and the same applies for online meetings.

  • Check your local council website – they might have notice of a live stream upcoming or may have streams recorded and uploaded there. There might be information where councillors are listed or in a separate meetings section on when the next meeting is happening and how to register for it or how it is streamed. You might be able to see agendas for upcoming meetings with dates on them with details of how to log in or register.
  • Check their social media – Facebook, Twitter or Youtube – for previous streams of councils or dates for upcoming meetings. 
  • Contact the Corporate Services in your council – you should be able to find an email on the website for them. 
  • There might be a Meetings Secretary – ask for their contact details to find our process to attend
  • Your pre-Covid council public viewing process might indicate how you might go about it (ie. in one Council you had to contact a Councillor to get a ticket to go to a meeting in person)

Some councils might stream it on their website, youtube/social media or will require pre-registration to watch a stream live on a hosting service such as zoom. 

So my council doesn’t have an option for the public to access meetings yet…

Perhaps your council hasn’t considered it yet or may be delaying because they’re wary of how to do it right. Here are some ideas to get the conversation moving.

  • Email councillors to gain political support. 
    • Ask them to raise a question at meetings to ask when public viewing options would be made available to keep pressure on. 
    • Ask the Councillors to email the council staff directly on your behalf. (As the public hold Councillors to account, Councillors hold Council staff accountable). Some of the staff who may have a say in this is the Council Chief Executive, the Director of Services/Corporate Services or the Meetings Secretary. 
  • Ask a Councillor to bring a motion on it. This could be discussed at a Plenary meeting or at a Procedures committee.
  • Email the Chief Executive of the Council directly. They manage staff of the council. 
  • Public pressure. Grow a campaign and get more people to email asking about how they can access the local council meetings.
  • Press coverage. Contact a journalist to cover it, write an opinion piece for the local paper  journalist to get them to cover the story, write a letter to the editor. 
  • Complaints process – if you have tried all else and it still isn’t available, you can submit a complaint to the local authority.

Some information that may be helpful to you when campaigning for access;

Please note that the following information is not legal advice nor should it be interpreted as such. (via Transparency.ie and Waterford City & County Council)

There is no legal obligation on authorities to broadcast meetings online. But it is questionable whether they are complying with s.45 of the LGA 2001 if public attendance at meetings held remotely isn’t being facilitated. It is possible that this could be subject to judicial review, although that is unlikely to be a realistic option.

The legal basis for holding remote meetings was signed into law under SI No 445 of 202 dated 20 October 2020Note: The council may need to amend associated supplementary Standing Orders after this to reflect them being able to be in a position to allow public access to meetings in accordance with these amended Standing Orders. Some other Councillors have argued that standing orders should not apply to viewers of the Council meetings.

Some Councils that have online public viewing provision;

  • Kildare County Council
  • Waterford City and County Council
  • Dublin City Council
  • Fingal Council
  • Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Council
  • Roscommon County Council
  • Cork City Council

Let us know if (when!) your council has public access and we will add it to the list.

I have access to view my Council meetings live now – what next?

  • Access to supporting documents to council meetings. Supporting documents are the documents that related to the items listed on the agenda for discussion but would be attached separately – i.e. the chief exec report, planning reports, development plans, motions… whatever was coming up for discussion. Councils have to provide public access to the agenda in advance of a meeting but do not have to provide supporting documentation for all of the items listed. Councillors have access to these documents in advance to prepare for the meeting (media may have access too). 
    • If the public is not able to access the supporting documents of a meeting ahead of time – it can leave many confused and unable to follow along with what is being referred to or what motions are being voted on that meeting. 
    • Nor would the public be able to lobby your representatives in advance on the items/motions – particularly if there was a vote for example. 
    • By not providing supporting documentation in advance can be a barrier to public engagement in local democracy.
    • Schedule 10 of the Local Government Act 2001 outlines a local authority’s legal obligations in relation to meetings. Paragraph eight of this schedule requires that the authority publishes notice of meetings (to include the agenda), but doesn’t oblige them to publish further documentation. 
  • Make all council meeting minutes accessible online – plenary, district, special purpose committees (SPCs) [housing, environment, enterprise etc] and the Joint Policing Committee should all have minutes accessible online.
    • According to Paragraph 17 of Schedule 10 of the LGA 2001, the authority may have a legal obligation to provide minutes of committee meetings. 
  • Is the council fully accessible for everyone? Do they have ISL provision on request or closed captions options or subtitles?
  • Do the standing orders make it inaccessible to you? Do you have to have a camera or have it on? This is an issue for Councils that require pre-registration to attend (e.g. on zoom) for those who do not have a camera inbuilt in their monitor which many don’t and those with poor internet connection and may result in them being removed from a meeting.
  • Are the recordings of the meetings available afterwards for people to watch?
  • Campaign for a centralised website for council minutes, documents and meeting videos. Maybe this could be hosted on something similar to the Oireachtas TV website?
  • If you’ve more ideas and are interested in starting your own campaign – you can on https://my.uplift.ie/petition/new

With access to meetings and information, and by joining together, we can make sure our local governance structures work for “we the people,” and not just the few.

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