THE sounds of silence will again ring out through the public gallery as Bathurst Regional Council meets for its monthly meeting on Wednesday night.
COVID-19 restrictions on indoor gatherings have meant the public has been locked out of council meetings since March and there is still no date set for them to return.
The introduction of compulsory live streaming of all council meetings - pushed through last year by the state government - could not have been more timely and at least means people can still watch council proceedings from the comfort of their homes.
But no public gallery also means no public question time at the start of each meeting and that represents a significant loss.
It has limited the opportunities the general public have to raise issues of concern directly with councillors, and also limited the opportunities for councillors to gain another real gauge on public sentiment.
And, as we saw with the case of the West Bathurst roundabout, public question time can act as a catalyst for real change in the region, even in cases where nothing of substance has been achieved in the 20 years prior.
Council's decision to close the public gallery at the start of the pandemic was undoubtedly the correct one.
Back in April no one could be sure just what impact COVID-19 was going to have on our community, nor how many infections a regional centre like Bathurst could realistically anticipate.
The overwhelming health advice was to avoid all non-essential gatherings and closing the public gallery was consistent with that advice.
But it has not come without cost; in this case, the loss of vital public input into council decisions at a time when some very divisive matters have been on the agenda.
And so now the time has come for council to seriously reconsider its position.
When the full council meeting room is made available there must surely be room for a handful of onlookers while still maintaining adequate distancing.
It might require, for the first time, residents to register to attend a meeting and there would have to be limits placed on the numbers allowed. It might also be wise for high-risk people to stay away a bit longer yet.
But where there's a will there must be a way to make it happen - and hopefully in time for the December monthly meeting.
What do you think?
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