The other day I went along to a meeting of the Eurobodalla Shire Council. This was an experience. These meetings are held, appropriately, in the Council Chamber. This chamber (what a lovely word!) seems to be relatively new and is designed to convey an aura of grandeur and serious bureaucratic business. And I am quite sure it would succeed in conveying these qualities to the uniformed, inexperienced and uninitiated. To those who are informed, experienced and initiated its is simply a rather over-the-top meeting room. It does, however, boast some magnificent timber work that I hope has used local trees.
There are finely turned desks for the people that matter. These people, namely the Councillors and the senior bureaucrats, are arranged in the centre of the chamber. There is what passes as a viewing gallery around about a third of the chamber’s perimeter. I entered about five minutes before the meeting started and joined about twenty other observers (though some of these may have been public servants standing in readiness lest they need to dig their senior managers out of a hole). The Mayor chairs these meetings and she sits, as is called for by pomp and circumstance, at the centre. There are ranged behind her three flags and above the flags, interestingly, a picture of a young Her Majesty the Queen. At the back of the room, that is behind the spectators, the wall is covered with photographs of the Shire’s former great and good. I had thought as I looked at these pictures, that they are white males to a man but, in fact, there is a lone woman there. She is the rather beautifully named P Green (there is not a first name but I am sure she is well-known to some, but not to me).
The point about a Council meeting, it seems to me, is not that anything actually gets done there. I was pleased to see that the Councillors had iPads so that they could easily reference the meeting papers (or do their e-mail, on-line shopping, or whatever else they might need to do to relieve the tedium that accompanies any meeting). In days of old no doubt the papers were printed … were that done today they would amount to several hundred pages and you can be sure that no one person would have read all of them. And that is why nothing can get done at a meeting, Council meeting or otherwise. You can only, in practice, tick boxes.
In my experience, which is likely to be as useful as anyone’s, the meeting at which everyone is fully informed in regard to the matters at hand has never happened. There is an extension to the Peter Principle that says that the amount of time spent on an agenda item at a meeting is inversely proportional to the risk and cost of the matter at hand. A proposal to construct a nuclear reactor will go through on a nod. A proposal to build a bike shed will be debated for hours. This is due to the fact that we all understand bike sheds so do not need to read the papers. None of us understands nuclear reactors, and we have no desire to, so the myriad papers go unread; we assume the experts have done their work so it will all be alright on the night. I do not wish to infer that the Peter Principle has ever applied to a decision made at a Council meeting but only to point out that being a Councillor is a weighty responsibility.
Nonetheless a Council meeting is an important, if formal, part of the democratic process. It’s a place where you can go, if you are a suitably motivated citizen, to make your point and to get it noted. Not, of course, that the fact of its noting will necessarily make one jot of difference but it’s possible that it might. There is a process by which, as a citizen who has a point to make, you can have five minutes of glory. In practice, you get more than five minutes for, after your five minutes are up the Council can vote to give you another three minutes. Because it’s a formal process, the Council would be unwise not to give you your extra three minutes lest they were subsequently to be accused of failing you in your rights. There were several such concerned citizens proclaiming about whatever it was that they felt needed to be aired in a public and formal forum. Not all of these citizens were as effective as they could have been in making their points. You could see from the glazed looks on the faces of some of the Councillors during one of two of the presentations that the presenter was not getting the point across.
These few presentations have all entered into the public record. This part of the meeting took about forty minutes. We then progressed to the items that were on the published agenda. This was not at all easy to follow. It is not that the items were not taken in the order published; it is sensible for the secretariat of such a meeting to bring forward those things that must be addressed. It was, rather, than it was not always clear which bits of which document was being looked at. And even when it was it was not always clear (to me at any rate, and I will admit to occasionally being a currant short of a fruit cake) whether what was displayed on the screen at the front of the chamber was the same as what was in the documentation. It was as well that I had downloaded all the documents onto the iPad before I arrived as I was surprised (staggered might be a better word) that there was no sign advertising the wifi network and password to which we could connect.
I have to confess that when the Chair (that is the Mayor) decided that a five minute bio-break was needed I decided that I had had enough. The decision to have a five minute bio-break was, of course, put to the vote. This is an example of when procedural formality is not only silly but also needs to be seen to be silly. I rolled out of the Council chamber feeling that I had done something that would salve my soul but I was not quite clear what it was. I have the greatest of respect for these poor elected representatives who struggled valiantly to stay engaged and who only occasionally let their attention and their patience lapse. I shall go again but I think it will only to hear the pleas of the concerned citizens who are motivated enough to claim their five plus three minutes of time before the Council.
Whether you should go or not is not for me to say. A part of me thinks that we should understand the process by which local decisions are made and that democracy is a process that is participative. It’s easy to criticise the Council as a club … it is a club but it’s a club that we could all be a member of. It’s also easy to criticise the people we elect (and, of course, we have elected them) on the grounds of their capacity and capability to do what we elected them to do. And, as Dr Johnson said, you do not need to be a carpenter to criticise a table. But you do really need to know what a table is for. So, in the same way, we should always and loudly criticise our elected representatives, but we should also understand the inputs they are trying to balance
Above: The Chamber