A Historic crossroad: Will Councillors vote to support GMs draconian recommendation
On Tuesday June 11th Eurobodalla Councillors will be asked to adopt a recommendation of the General Manger, Catherine Dale (below), that, as from that day forward Council no longer conduct Public Access sessions that allow members of the community to come forward and present on non-agenda issues and concerns to councillors in Council Chambers. Such access has been available to the community since the 1980's.
The only justification the General Manager has offered for removing this democratic interface is that: "Members of the public have a many avenues to raise issues with Councillors. Councillor’s email and phone contact details are available on Council’s website. Residents and ratepayers may contact individual councillors or a group at any time." "With this context, it is considered that there is no need to rely on Public Access for Councillors to be aware of and understand the views of the community effectively." Added to the recommendation to remove Public Access session that currently precedes each Council meeting is the General Managers determination to remove the webcasting and video recording of the Public Forum that has members of the community present on agenda issues to Councillors. This session is Live Streamed and has video archiving to include and improve public access to local government. Eurobodalla Shire Council commenced live streaming of Council meetings including Public Forum on 10 February 2015. Dr Dale's justifications for removal of webcasting or even the video recording of Public Forum are slim at best offering excuses such as "webcasting of Public Forum not only increases Council’s potential liability, but could also cause significant or offence should a speaker reveal an issue of privacy or state derogatory comments about a person which is based on incorrect, malicious or misunderstood information." The OLG offer that webcasting requirement may be met simply by posting an audio or video recording of the meeting on the council’s website. Council could if it wish introduce time delayed webcasting (such as 10 minutes) of Public Forum sessions as is done in other council's or they might post the Public Forum video session later in the day. Eurobodalla Council already does this and have also shown by example that they are prepared and able to redact video from their archives as was the recent, curly case with the Public Forum presentation of Mr Bernard. Quite remarkably Dr Dale offers as part of her justification to remove the webcasting of Public Forum as ‘Public forums at council meetings are not an appropriate substitute for effective community consultation and councils need to be mindful that the views expressed at public forums will not necessarily be representative of the views of other affected parties or the broader community.’ With this in mind it is surprising that Dr Dale did not remove the tabling of petitions as well from future Council meetings citing that the community can present them at any time to a Councillor or the Council. It is of little wonder then that petitions are generally ignored by Eurobodalla Council if this is the viewpoint of the General Manager who champions instead a Community Engagement Framework that she has so far failed to use resulting in the mess that Council presently sees itself in around the Mackay Park project that has become an embarrassing fiasco. Having followed Council closely for many years a recurring comment made by Councillors in their subsequent debate and determination of an agenda item during a Council meeting is "Having listened to an early presenter on this issue....". The Mayor has used this evidence of community support only recently with the marathon session of Public Forum speakers on the Rural Lands Strategy while also using Public Forum presentations that call Council to account as evidence of "grand standing" taking the opportunity to launch into rhetorical grandstanding to deliver her own perspectives of an issue to her fellow councillors prior to discussion and debate. The General Manager has offered in her report to Councillors that ‘Public forums at council meetings are not an appropriate substitute for effective community consultation and councils need to be mindful that the views expressed at public forums will not necessarily be representative of the views of other affected parties or the broader community.’ Yet in her very same report she identifies only two submissions in support of not webcasting public forum giving substance to her stance and fails to reveal that none of these nay-sayers have ever presented to Council during Public Forum calling for the webcasting to discontinue. While the Office of Local Government (OLG) may have stated in their Code of Meeting advice that: ‘Public forum should not be held as part of a Council or committee meeting. Council or committee meetings should be reserved for decision making by Council.’ and that ‘Public forum should operate as an input into Council decision – making at meetings.’ it offers no guidance at all that Public Forum cannot precede a Council meeting and offers no guidance that it should not be webcast or video recorded. The determination to remove webcasting and/or video recording of Public Forum comes solely from the General Manager and her staff putting forward the recommendation to Councillors to endorse. On Tuesday councillors are fully at liberty to say "No, General Manager, we do not agree and wish to see the webcasting of the Public Forum session retained exactly as it has been for the past four years." If Councillors do vote to accept the recommendations of the General Manager it will see Eurobodalla Council become the only council in South East NSW that does not video Public Forum.