Enjoying watching Council's Live Streaming of Public Forum where speakers present to Council each fortnight on agenda items up for debate? Time poor and can't watch at 10am on a Tuesday but enjoy listening to presenters when able via the Live Stream archives? Heard that a presenter or councillor was harangued during a presentation and need to slow the video down to hear what was said? Enjoy reading the submissions on line in the Beagle while watching the captured and republished video feed? Well, kiss it all good by if the General Manager of Eurobodalla, Catherine Dale, gets her way at next Tuesday's Ordinary Council meeting with the rewrite of Council's Code of Meeting Practice and all under the banner of "Innovative and Proactive Leadership Focus providing strong leadership and work in partnership to strategically plan for the future and progress towards the community vision"
Above: Dr Catherine Dale - General Manager
No more Live Streaming of Public Forum, five minutes per speaker, no extensions and provide your presentation the day before so they can prepare to hammer you with questions, denigrate your submission, ask Dorothy Dixers and then deny anything they said because it wasn't recorded. What we presently have: A Council that invites the community to attend its meetings and encourages them to present their concerns to Councillors in a public Forum. There are two forums available where the public can address the councillors. The first is Public Access where any local council related issue can be raised with the speaker, given 5 minutes to read their presentation and possibly even granted a three minute extension if agreed to by the councillors. While still under the controls of formal meeting protocols this 30 minute session that precedes a Council meeting is not Live Streamed. The second more formal Public Forum we currently have is Live Streamed on the internet for the community to see and hear and is recorded in Council’s archives. This Forum enables members of the public to address issues that are on the Council’s agenda of the day and for those watching to hear submissions prior to the Item being debated. Next Tuesday will see the Eurobodalla General Manager and her staff put up recommendations for the Councillors to adopt a draft that will see an end to the Live Streaming and recording of the Public Forum. This draft and recommendation is authored by the General Manager, Catherine Dale and her staff and the Councillors have not yet agreed to it having only been briefed by staff of what changes they propose and why they intend to make their recommendations. Council had already endorsed the Office of Local Government’s (OLG) Draft Consultation Code of Meeting Practice on 13 March 2018. OLG then released the prescribed Model Meeting Code on 14 December 2018 setting out mandatory changes. Councils are now at liberty to add additional “rules” to the draft. Until a council adopts a new code of meeting practice, its existing code of meeting practice will remain in force up until 14 June 2019. It is a fact that Eurobodalla Council staff loathe the existing web-casting and recording for archives of the Public Forum. The video archive has served well as evidence in Codes of Conduct being taken out against Councillors and the archives provide slow-motion replay of statements, actions and outcries. Whilst the Public Forum is conducted under formal meeting rules it delivers live and unpredictably the outbursts of Councillors that have all too often come back to bite them on the backside. In recent times the Beagle has packaged and presented Public Forum presentations and resulting tirades during question time and it is understandable that the General Manager is hell-bent on closing this down with the recommendation that Public Forum not be recorded. How does she deliver this to her councillors for their approval? The General Manager and her staff cite that the Office of Local Government (OLG) states that ‘Public forums SHOULD not be held AS PART of a Council or committee meeting suggesting that Council or committee meetings should be reserved for decision-making by the Council or committee of Council. They do concede however that the OLG says that public forums should operate as an input into council decision-making at meetings suggesting that they should be focussed on the matters under consideration at a council meeting and not operate as a “grandstanding soapbox” and debate with elected officials on matters under consideration at a meeting saying quoting the OLG Code that states “Participation in a public forum is a privilege not a right. It should be within the discretion of a council to withdraw this privilege where a person fails to respect meeting rules or engages in disorderly conduct.” This is how the current Public Forums are run in Eurobodalla Council and have been effectively run for many years. So how does the General Manager and her staff plan to get around it? The OLG also strongly suggests, in the interests of ensuring informed decision making, there should be a gap between the Public Forum and the Council meeting to allow councillors the time to properly consider matters raised at the public forum and, if necessary, to seek further input and guidance from staff before being required to make a decision on those matters. Presently there is no gap and Public Form seamlessly slides into the items of the Ordinary Council meeting. Council staff propose that Public Forum should be held at 9.30am for one hour prior to the Council meeting, with a possible extension of 15 minutes saying “This will enable members of the public to present to Council during the decision forming stages of the democratic process and not during the decision making process, which is the Council meeting.”
The report states “By facilitating the Public Forum session prior to the Council meeting, community members can raise issues with Councillors for consideration prior to making the decision. It is proposed that Public Forum will not be live streamed as it is not part of the decision making process, which is the Council meeting.”
The proposed timeline for Council meeting days is as follows: 9.30am Councillors hear submissions on agenda items with a 15 minute possible extension. It is recommended that speakers be limited to five minutes with no extension and questions from Councillors and answers from speakers must be direct, succinct and without argument. 10.30am Councillors have a break to consider submissions. 11.00am Council meeting commences. It is also proposed that presenters send their presentations to Council by 12.00 noon on the business day prior to the meeting. Currently presenters are required to provide their presentations at the Council meeting after their presentations. The new proposal offers the justification that submissions will be forwarded to Councillors for their information and consideration prior to the Public Forum session. Those who have presented to Council will recognise here that Council already request a presenter to describe the item they wish to present to when they register the day before. Even with just this information it has been more than evident that Council have then structured questions, Dorothy Dixers and even denigrations in readiness for the presentation. Of interest is the General Managers proposal that the Public Access be dissolved saying, by way of background, that Public Access was developed to enable the community to connect with Councillors. “Since its implementation, the way we communicate has evolved and Councillors are now more connected with their community. Councillors can be contacted via email or mobile with all contact details published on Council’s website.” It now appears that the Public Access session that was “open topic” and not agendas item is now removed with Council staff offering “By facilitating the Public Forum session prior to the Council meeting, community members can raise issues with Councillors for consideration prior to making the decision (indicating an agenda item).” With no Public Access it removes the opportunity for the community to ask Councillors, for example, why Council continues to block GIPA requests for information from the NSW Government or why the Council have failed in their duty under the Local Government Act. Such submissions with questions, once offered in an open and transparent council chamber to the councillors will no longer be possible and the accountability and subsequent revelations that have been availed via Public Access to the wider community will become history.
The OLG have indicated that councils can provide additional provisions as long as they do not contradict the mandatory provisions. Eurobodalla Council staff are recommending that there be no limit to the number of topics in a Public Forum presentation however presenters will have five minutes to put their case on any number of topics. Clarity is still required around if these topics must be agenda items. They also put forward that ‘If more speakers apply (for Public Forum) , than can be dealt with in the allocated time, the General Manager or their delegate may request that up to three (3) speakers for and against to nominate from among themselves the persons who are to address the Council on the item of business. If the speakers are not able to agree on whom to nominate to address the Council, the General Manager will draw the names from a ballot’ Imagine the farce of this where there may well be seventeen people speaking against the Rural LEP for example across seventeen different issues, five speaking in favour and four neutrally offering clarity around Policy and the Acts. If the General Manager is the one to determine who is for and who is against what then becomes of the neutral speakers? The case in point was the recent very neutral presentation by an expert advising councillors that they needed to seek clarity around several concerning issues to do with a development application at Mossy Point. The presentation was not for, or against, but challenged Council’s planning approval processes. The Draft Code of Meeting Practice also recommends that “Approved speakers at the public forum are to provide a written copy of their address to the Council by 12.00noon the business day prior to the meeting via email to email@example.com or hard copy at Council’s main office in Moruya or Batemans Bay or Narooma libraries’ It also recommends the order of speakers at the public forum is determined by the order of the agenda being: - Welcome, Acknowledgement of Country and Evacuation Message - Apologies and applications for a leave of absence by councillors - Confirmation of minutes - Disclosures of interests - Mayoral minute(s) - Notices of motions - Questions with notice - Petitions - Reports to Council - Delegate Reports - Urgent Business - Confidential matters - Conclusion of the meeting. It will be interesting to see how our councillors react to this.