On June the 11th, 2019 Council will meet to determine the fate of Live Streaming of Public Forum and the continuation of Public Access. Presently we enjoy the liberty of presenting non-agenda items to Councillors from 9:30am to 10am. These sessions allow members of the public to present, for five minutes, their concerns anything from the size of aggregate on a local road reseal to the failure of council to satisfactorily act to barking complaints. Public Access is not live streamed however any presentation delivered is placed on the Council's website for the wider community to view, both in presentation and in any answers given to the issue. On June 11th Councillors look likely to vote the removal of this forum. Councillors also look likely with their continued voting block of 6 against 3 to endorse the recommendation of the General Manager, Catherine Dale, to: 1) remove live streaming along with video and audio recording of Public Forum. 2) require all presentations to be delivered to Council 24 hours before 3) limit presenters to 5 minutes with no extension of time 4) give the General Manager authority on who speaks or doesn't speak Public Forum, by the General Manager's recommendation will see presentations delivered to councillors alone with no record of the presentation nor any record of the questions, comments and responses of Councillors. Council may archive the presentations on their website however that has not been stated as their intention. Last week we saw three very solid presentations to Council over the issue of the proposed sale of the Batemans Bay Community Hall. The presenters were well informed, well mannered and were indeed challenging to the councillors and staff that left the Mayor and general Manager quite rattled whilst exposing that councillors in the room were not at all up to running speed over the business case (or lack thereof) for the new Mackay Park project and that once again there was a breakdown in communication between staff, councillors and the wider community. The Public Forum and subsequent debate by councillors over a petition being tabled clearly proved that the community needs to be worried about Council's capacity to manage the $51m project let alone take it on as an asset and have the fiscal capacity to run it without major incurring losses and bringing financial burden to ratepayers. It is now considered that such public displays of Council floundering that become part of the public record via Live Streaming and Video archive are the prime reasons why Council is moving to remove video and audio recording. Another reason could well be that the public have used the video archives as evidence of statements and actions made by Councillors and Council staff to raise Codes of Conduct complaints over breaches to the Local Government Act. To remove the video recording of Public Forum removes that evidence. But is this in the interests of the community who successfully fought for Live Streaming of Public Forum to improve the interface between Council and the community and to ensure those unable to attend council meetings could listen to Public Forum presentations specifically delivered on items that were on the Agenda of that day. Council's own Community Engagement Framework - One Community: Community Strategic Plan states:
In regards to the proposed removal of Public Forum as we know it a Council report stated on March 26th 2019 "In the context of those (page 15) provisions, Council has an adopted Community Engagement Framework, which guide how projects, both Shire wide and local, engage the community in order to provide feedback from interested parties prior to Council making a decision." The report also states "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" If a member (or members) of the public presenting their views to Councillors prior to a decision being made is not part of the decision making process then we have lost the plot. In regards to the public coming forward to present to councillors as a whole in Public Access and the planned permanent removal of this interface the General Manager offers: "It is also proposed that Public Access not occur. By way of background, 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" So how has it come to the General Manager now recommending the disbanding of what we have enjoyed as open and transparent democracy to date? The big question is "Who's idea is this?" While the General Manager, Catherine Dale, has her name on the report and the recommendation we know that such initiatives come from workshops with Councillors and Council Executive and staff.
The problem is not councillors being uneducated .... It is widely known that there are senior staff in Eurobodalla along with Councillors who detest the Public Access and Forum sessions and consider them both a waste of time, a waste of resources and little but an opportunity for the community to use it as a platform to grandstand themselves. The disdain shown by councillors to speakers, the lack of respect displayed that sees them scrolling their devices rather than listening or even offering some sign of paying attention is disgusting enough but the true measure of their disdain for anyone who presents any challenge comes to light when the opportunity for a three minute extension is considered for those who need a little longer. Three councillors all but refuse to grant any such extension to anyone unless.... it is someone in their favour who is offering praise to the council or supporting an issue they agree with. What justifications have the Council offered for the removal of live Streaming of Public Forum? Is it a requirement of the Office of Local Government? NO. The OLG says: "The council may hold a public forum prior to each ordinary meeting of the council for the purpose of hearing oral submissions from members of the public on items of business to be considered at the meeting. Public forums may also be held prior to extraordinary council meetings and meetings of committees of the council." The OLG says nothing at all about video recording or live streaming of Public Forums. All it states is that Council meetings be webcast and video recorded. The call to not video record and webcast Public Forum has been made by our Councillors alone who have deemed that the Live Streamed Public Forum SHALL be excised from the webcast. This comes down to the question of who authored this. The Draft Code of Meeting practice was written by the General Manager, Catherine Dale. It is presented by her and bears her name. The Draft would have been workshopped and the GM would have provided guidance of what is mandatory of the new OLG requirements. She would then have advised councillors that they could add non-mandatory elements as well. "General Manager, is webcasting of Public Forum mandatory?" an Executive member or even the Mayor may have asked. There would have been considerable discussion around that question and it would have been AGREED by the councillors (by vote or otherwise) that the Draft Code of Meeting Practice remove Public Forum from being webcast. That decision is and will remain the decision of Councillors and while Councillor Constable argued in Chambers that the wording be changed that Councillors "submit" the Draft Code to the community for comment rather than "endorse" it the very fact that it left the workshop indicates that it did so with the support of the Mayor, the Executive and the majority of councillors. On June the 11th, depending on how the vote goes, the community might witness the end of webcasting and video archiving of public presentations. There have been fifteen submissions to date challenging this intention of Council's and no doubt there will be very strong presentations made on the day. The vote by Councillors will determine the fate of the Public Forum and the potential loss of Public Access however as these possible determinations are only in a Code they can be overturned by the next Council that will be elected in September 2020. And for the record the June 11th vote of the current councillors, the debate and the presentations WILL be live streamed, video recorded and archived. And what of our neighbours? Speaking with Region Media, Bega Valley General Manager Leanne Barnes says, “It is vital to stress that members of the public will still be able to make their presentations to Councillors around Council agenda items.”“As part of the Draft Code of Meeting Practice, and as outlined by the Office of Local Government, meetings are for decision making.“The proposed changes in relation to deputations allow for members of the public to make [statements], but not in the time allocated for business.” The Bega Valley General Manager advised that the live streaming of the Public Forum/deputations will continue if a new time is adopted telling Ian Campbell of About Regional “Council respects the right of community members, groups and ratepayers to raise issues of importance directly with Councillors.” In Palerang Council to our west covering Queanbeayn and region they webcast their Public Forum under their newly adopted Code of Meeting Practice stating: The council will hold a public forum as part of its meeting process for the council. The purpose of the Public Forum is to: • hear oral submissions from members of the public on items of business to be considered at the meeting, • the tabling of petitions and • the tabling of Questions on Notice from the public on any issue relating to the Council’s legislative responsibilities and activities. Public forums may also be held at extraordinary council meetings and meetings of committees of the council.