The Beagle Editor, Beagle readers may be interested in my letter to councillors regarding my concerns with council’s Draft Code of Meeting Practice.
Why is ESC so determined to isolate the community from its decision making process?
Above: Council's General Manager Catherine Dale is recommending removal of Web casting of Public Forum that will remove the inroads that have been made to date that offers accessible, open and transparent archiving of PUBLIC forum presentations for the whole community to listen to as part of the democratic process. Not everyone can attend a council meeting at 10am on a Tuesday. Council’s latest manoeuvre in this regard occurs in its new Draft Code of Meeting Practice, the responsibility of the General Manager, Catherine Dale.
This Code will eliminate entirely, ‘public access’ sessions where community members can meet with councillors to express their views, concerns and to provide information on any issue.
Council’s justification for its removal is that the community can access councillors via email or phone. The problem with this being that most councillors don’t respond to emails or phone calls. Also, it must be said that there is no substitute for face to face contact where facial expressions and body language reflect interest, understanding and/or empathy.
Even more disturbing, is that this Code will remove Public Forum from the council meeting agenda – meaning community members wishing to speak to an item on the agenda, will no longer play a role in the democratic process of a council meeting. Instead they will be relegated to an earlier time slot where their input WILL NOT be WEBCAST.
Consequently, members of the public, unable to attend council meetings/chambers due to work, geographic location, disability or other commitments will be denied access to information provided by their fellow ratepayers, on issues that effect them.
It must be noted that Public Forum is not merely about expressing an opinion.
Public Forum speakers choose to speak publicly as they can contribute valuable information necessary for informed decision making by councillors.
They can provide local knowledge, professional advice, experience, expertise etc, or they may represent an organisation or community group, such as a sports group, those with a disability, children, aboriginal perspective etc.
These speakers can provide valuable insights that would otherwise be unavailable to the public.
PUBLIC Forum speakers wish to share their information, not just with councillors or the few who are able to attend council meetings, but with the PUBLIC.
So why is the General Manager so intent on denying public access to this info by refusing to webcast Public Forum? As the Office of Local Govt states: webcasting “increases(s) the transparency of council decision making and allow(s) access to those who may not be physically able to attend ......”
Taking such a large step backwards in transparency is being justified by the General Manager and her staff by the existence of council’s Community Engagement Framework (CEF), which supposedly provides an alternative avenue for community input.
This assertion is problematic as council does not always utilise its Framework, as evidenced by the lack of shire wide community consultation on the concept plans for Mackay Park and the loss of the Bay’s 50m pool. In this instance council was extremely ‘selective’ in who they engaged with, rather than, “inclusive, to maximise opportunities for a wide range of community members to participate.”(CEF – Principles of Engagement).
As a Principle of Engagement in council’s Framework, inclusiveness should also be applied to members of the public who are unable to physically attend Public Forum. Such a large section of the community should not be excluded from access to information presented by fellow ratepayers.
Also of import in council’s Framework is that one of the Community Engagement Goals is to - “provide different ways for community members to give their input.” In other words, public access sessions, Public Forum, utilising the Framework, seeking submission etc should all be used as avenues for community input.
As for ‘approved’ Public Forum speakers having to provide a written copy of their address to council the day before the meeting, WHY?
Councillors will have an extra half hour to consider presentations prior to the council meeting. If Councillors have already read presentations why would speakers want or need to present them?
The only reason I can see for this proviso is to allow time for STAFF to censure, redact, edit or prepare an ‘inquisition’. This is a control mechanism more appropriate to a dictatorship. It has no place in a democracy.
And finally, a reminder to Councillors from the Meeting Principles of the ‘Model Code of Meeting Practice’:
“Trusted – the community has confidence that councillors and staff act ethically and make decisions in the interests of the whole community.” By removing webcast of Public Forum council will NOT be acting in the interests of all those unable to attend council chambers on the day.
I urge Councillors to reject management’s Draft Code of Meeting Practice until such time as it improves upon transparency, inclusiveness and is more indicative of the democratic process.
Deua River Valley