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Local government transparency: Are councils meeting the standard?

NSW local councils are required by law to record and publish their meetings online, but each council interprets this obligation differently.

Bayside Council video records and uploads most of their council meetings to YouTube for public scrutiny, but are they doing enough to promote a transparent democracy at a local level?

Since December 2019, all councils in NSW are obliged to webcast their council meetings, bringing them in line with state and federal government policy – yet this requirement has been taken on board in various ways.

“For me, it’s about transparency and more about treating residents and ratepayers with respect, because it shouldn’t be difficult to find out what your council is doing, but it is,” said radio journalist Gemma Purves, who got to know the peculiarities of local councils working in community radio.

During her time at East Side Radio Purves covered council politics on a half-hour weekly show and became attuned to how councils were responding to the rules – that were implemented to encourage better transparency in local government.

While all councils publish their meeting minutes, the debates and discussions by councillors are omitted from these documents.

“Council meetings can be very boring, but it’s also a really interesting insight into the personalities of the councillors,” said Purves.

The audio-only recording of a Woollahra Council meeting can make for a painful viewing experience. Photo: Screenshot.

At the bottom of the pack, are councils – like Woollahra and Randwick – that only upload an audio recording of their meetings, which makes it very difficult to follow along, or find a particular motion or discussion you are interested in.

Then there is the middle of the pack – Bayside and the Inner West – that upload a video recording of most of their meetings. The addition of video makes meetings easier to follow, but trying to find a specific discussion remains difficult.

The video recording inside the Bayside Council chamber. Photo: Screenshot.

“I listen to quite a lot [of council meetings]. I listened to Inner West, Blue Mountains and the City of Sydney, as well as our meetings,” said Bayside local Tina Workman.

“It’s impossible to find anything [on the Bayside site], if you do want to find anything, you’ve actually got to listen to the whole thing,” she said.

And finally, the crème de la crème; a live recording of the minutes or detailed timestamps alongside video of the chamber. City of Sydney, Georges River and Waverley are a few of the councils that take out this title, which makes searching through meetings a relative breeze.

A live video recording of the minutes and inside chamber at a Georges River Council meeting which is available on YouTube. Photo: Screenshot.

“The City of Sydney has a fantastic system; you go on their website and all the motions are listed. You just click on the motion and it takes you straight to that section in the video,” said Workman.

In a recent submission to the state government, council advocacy body Local Government NSW (LGNSW) supports state government requirements to record meetings, but says a transition period is needed to allow councils time to source the technology for webcasts.

“LGNSW supports live broadcasting of meetings however as it may have resource implications for councils, LGNSW recommends a transition period to allow councils to source technology at a reasonable cost,” a spokesperson said.

Bayside Mayor Dr Christina Curry did not respond to a request for comment. However, since questions were put to the Mayor, council has retrospectively added detailed timestamps to all 2023 council meeting recordings.

“With most councils it’s almost impossible to find their webcasts on their websites. At least with our council, it is a little bit easier [to find the recordings] than others,” said Workman.

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