Councillors ZOOM into the new Normal

Council's ordinary meeting of April 7th saw them adopt a new meeting protocol socially distancing from each other with the use of ZOOM conference calling. The Zoom session was broadcast to Council's website and appeared, in most parts, to be orderly and formal. There was the odd exception such as hen Councillor Tait decided to wander around his house giving viewers a guide tour of his ceilings. This added to the humour that most screens, at a some point revealed ill-placed cameras capturing double chins, tops of heads or nostrils. The winner on the day goes to Lindsay Brown who considered his background, his distance from camera and his lighting, sitting quite formally and officially in his long sleeve shirt and tie. This would have scored him 10 out of 10 if he had not have stood up revealing his shirt was not tucked in and that he may well have had budgey smugglers on below the desk. Today's was an important meeting for ratepayers in light of the councillors vote to move forward on their Delivery Program and their Operational Plan that includes the proposed rate increases as well as the intention to continue to overcharge water and sewer in order to feed the General Fund. Proposed changes include: • The general rate increases by 2.6%, the rate peg amount for 2020-21. • The environment fund rate increases by 2.6%. • The waste collection charges increases by 2.6% for the typical household. • The water access charge increases by 3% to $340 (20mm connection access charge) and the usage charge increases by 2.7% to $3.75 per kilolitre. • The sewer access charge increases by 2.1% to $990 (20mm connection access charge) and the usage charge increases by 2.1% to $1.96 per kilolitre. Council staff had recommended that "The revised draft Delivery Program 2017-21 and Operational Plan 2020-21 incorporating the Budget, Capital Works Program, Statement of Revenue Policy and Fees and Charges be endorsed and placed on public exhibition for a period of not less than 42 days." Councillor McGinlay was not at all happy with the recommendation that it be endorsed and moved an amendment that that  existing recommendation 1 be amended by omitting the words ‘endorsed and’. In light of the fact that the Eurobodalla region was now in its fourth quarter of recession having been financially hammered by bushfires, floods and now Covid-19 Councillor McGinlay also moved an amendment that "there be a 12 month moratorium until 30 June 2021, on implementing all proposed increases in any rates fees or charges" as outlined within these draft documents. Following a round of discussion that generally said that Council needed the increases to continue to provide its services and that there might well be cuts if revenue was reduced Councillor McGinlay then advised that the figures in the Draft clearly showed an expectation of $6m in revenue above that required to provide the services and that there was room to move to have a moratorium without affecting Council's bottom line. Of interest was the third amendment put forward by Clr McGinlay : That the DP OP document be amended at page 90 by omitting point 9) that references that forecasts dividend payment from Water and Sewer Funds to General Fund. While Council's staff advised the councillor during question time that water charges are determined taking account of the NSW Best Practice Pricing Guidelines there was no indication that NSW Best Practice Pricing Guidelines also included knowingly increasing water and sewer charges in order to bolster up a General Fund that is fixed by IPART. The discussion basically said that if such bolstering did not occur then there would be a considerable drop off in the services that Council could provide. In essence the response suggested that while Councillors and staff knew about the overcharging it would continue as it has done for over a decade to address the needs of the general fund that includes the $36 million (being 33%) of the total that is required in wages. At the end of business Councillors were asked if there were any Urgent Matters. What followed was most unfortunate with the Mayor closing the meeting before recognising that Councillor McGinlay had an Urgent Matter. The councillor was very clear that he had his hand up, with the Mayor saying she couldn't see it. The fact that the Councillor had an Urgent Matter was well known to the Mayor as, immediately prior to today’s meeting, as a matter of courtesy Councillor McGinlay had advised the Mayor, the GM and his fellow councillors of his intent to raise this urgent matter. Rather than using the power as a meeting chair and recognising an error had been made and that the councillor had in fact declared an Urgent Matter prior to the commencement of the meeting the Mayor simply dismissed the Councillor and advised him that he "will have the opportunity to bring it up at the next council meeting". So what was the Urgent Matter that the Mayor refused to allow? That Councillor McGinlay be able to put forward a motion That: The four council meeting dates that were cancelled at the previous council meeting of a fortnight ago be re- instated onto Councils meeting schedule.

Councillor McGinlay has advised the Beagle that "My arguments were to be that the decision to cancel these four meetings over the next 4 months, was based on safety considerations by minimising the number of occasions of face to face contact by councillors and staff at meetings due to the Covid-19 situation."

"Since that decision, legislative changes now permit formal council meetings via electronic distance medium as demonstrated today. The rationale for cancelling these meetings no longer exists.

"I believe that in these uncertain and ever- changing times we need our council to be meeting more often, not less. Unless my diary is in error, Our next scheduled council meeting is now 7 weeks hence on 27 May. I wonder what changes we will have seen in our local situation when that finally rolls around."

So there we have it - Eurobodalla Council embraces Zoom. And yes, seven weeks is a long time for our Council and councillors to be out of the spotlight.