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Time is running out to make submissions against Council's draconian intent to gag the public fro


The Beagle Editor,

I pass this on to Beagle readers in the hope that it will inspire others to voice their concerns and pen a submission to the Eurobodalla Shire Council regarding its Draft Code of Meeting Practice.

DUE DATE: This WED, 15th MAY

Note: The FAQ referred to in my submission below is a document published by the Office of Local Government (OLG) – Frequently Asked Questions, Circular No 18-45 published 18 Dec 2018. Read the FAQ HERE

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SUBMISSION: DRAFT CODE OF MEETING PRACTICE

Main concerns:

* Removal of public access – supplementary inclusion by council

* Removal of Public Forum webcasting – supplementary inclusion by council

* General Manager may refuse application to speak at Public Forum – non mandatory by OLG

* Written copy of address to be provided to council by noon the day prior to meeting – supplementary addition by council

* Removal of Public Access

This is a supplementary provision added by council. It is not included in OLG’s Model Code as mandatory or non mandatory.

The Draft Code eliminates 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.

It must also be said that there is no substitute for face to face contact where facial expressions and body language reflect interest, understanding and/or empathy.

* Removal of Public Forum Webcasting

This is a supplementary requirement added by council. It is not included in OLG’s Model Code as mandatory or non mandatory.

Council resolved to webcast council meetings, including Public Forum, at its meeting on 9 Dec 2014.

The aim being to enhance public access to decision making and debate by overcoming geographic barriers preventing public attendance at meetings.

This decision also fulfilled the Code’s objective to, “ensure that proceedings are transparent and understandable to all persons participating in and observing meetings of council ....”

What has changed?

After 4 years, why has council now decided that members of the public unable to attend council meetings due to work, geographic location, disability or other commitments, be denied access to information provided by their fellow ratepayers?

Webcasting of Public Forum allows speakers to share information and concerns with the public on issues that may effect them.

It also serves to enhance community awareness of issues, opinions and concerns that would otherwise be unknown to the public.

In an effort to justify its removal of Public Forum webcasting, council stated in its Report to Ordinary Meeting 26 Mar:

1. “OLG further strongly recommends: the provisions governing Public Forums contained in the Model Meeting Code reflect what OLG sees to be best practice ......................”

What OLG actually “strongly recommends” is that, “councils make provision in their Codes of Meeting Practice for some form of public access or input into council decision making.”(OLG’s FAQ Circular 18-45) This is not evident in the Draft Code even though council asserts it is meeting OLG benchmarks.

2. “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.”

This statement is contrary to what OLG identifies as best practice, explaining in its FAQ Circular 18-45,

“Public Forums should operate as an input into council decision-making at meetings,” - meaning they should focus on agenda items under consideration, not free ranging discussion of other matters. I do hope council’s misinterpretation was inadvertent.

Therefore, as Public Forum is to ‘operate as input into council decision making at meetings’, it must be webcast, no matter what time it is held.

And, as the FAQ Circular 18-45 states, the reason for making webcasting mandatory is,

“to increase the transparency of council decision making and to allow access to those who may not be physically able to attend meetings.”

Q. What has OLG made mandatory?

A. “all councils will be required to webcast meetings of the council and committees whose membership comprises only of councillors as of 14 Dec 2019.”

As Public Forum is a “meeting of council whose membership comprises only of councillors,” it must be webcast.

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.

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.

Taking such a large step backwards in transparency is also being justified 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.

* General Manager may refuse application to speak at Public Forum(3.7, 3.22)

This a non mandatory provision in the Model Code.

Empowering the General manager to refuse applications to speak at Public Forum is hardly ‘democratic.’

The General Manager should have no authority to pick and choose who is permitted to address our elected representatives.

Currently, only a council resolution or the Chair(if delegated) can authorise a ban on a community member from Public Forum, if that person commits an act of disorder and refuses to apologise.

Why has this authority been removed from councillors and given to the GM?

Council has provided no explanation for this change.

* Written copy of address to be provided to council by noon the day prior to meeting(3.4)

This is a supplementary requirement added by council. It is not included in OLG’s Model Code as mandatory or non mandatory.

The Model Code 4.10 does have a non mandatory provision, “to register with council any written, visual or audio material to be presented IN SUPPORT of their address to council ....... (insert) days before public forum.”

So the requirement to provide the actual address to council the day before, is a supplementary inclusion by council.

If councillors are to have half an hour to consider Public Forum presentations before the council meeting begins, why do they need a copy of the presentation the day before?

If Councillors have received and read presentations the day before, why would speakers want or need to present them at Public Forum?

Some councillors already exhibit attention deficit without having to ‘endure’ a presentation they have already read.

OR,

Perhaps this proviso has been added to the Code for the benefit of the General Manager - so she can ‘pick and choose’ who she will allow to present at Public Forum.

Perhaps it will enable staff to censor, redact, edit or prepare an ‘inquisition.’

No matter what the reason, it is a control mechanism that has no place in democratic decision making, as it does nothing to inspire trust, fairness or transparency.

It is glaringly obvious that council’s intent in drafting this Code was to conceal the views and concerns of the local community from the general public, minimise their impact on council decision making while endowing the General Manager with the power of veto .

Worthy of consideration is a Principle from 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.”

In whose interest is council acting if public access sessions are removed?

In whose interest is council acting if Public Forum webcasting is removed:

- all those unable to attend council chambers on the day?

- those who go to much effort in preparing their presentations to share with councillors AND the public?

In whose interest is council acting by assigning more power on the General Manager?

Most importantly, can you justify your decision, regarding this Code, in terms of Public Interest(Ethical Decision Making)?

I urge Councillors to reject management’s Draft Code of Meeting Practice until such time as it improves upon transparency, community involvement, inclusiveness and is more indicative of the democratic process.

Yours Sincerely

Patricia Gardiner

Deua River Valley

#Opinion #Council

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