Big Brother is a fictional character and symbol in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is ostensibly the leader of Oceania, a totalitarian state wherein the ruling party Ingsoc wields total power "for its own sake" over the inhabitants. What we are now witnessing in the Eurobodalla is a Council that more and more appears to wield total power "for its own sake" over the inhabitants being us, the residents and ratepayers. Next Tuesday will have speakers presenting to Councillors, for the first time in over thirty years, without any record of what is said, with no minutes of what is said and with no record of any of the questions or responses made by councillors. Only those who attend the Public Forum session at 9:30 next Tuesday will be witness to it. For the hundreds of residents and ratepayers both within the Eurobodalla along with the 40% non-resident ratepayers will discover Council have turned off the video webcasting of Public Forum and no record of it will appear on their website other than the presentation notes of the speakers. As reported in the Bay Post on June 12th, 2019 Mayor Liz Innes said her decision to vote against the webcast came down to "responsibilities and code of conduct". "(Councillors) should not knowingly deceive, defame or bring council into disrepute," she said. "The same code of conduct does not apply to members of the community who address council in this chamber in public forum." The Mayor told the Bay Post "there was a disappointing trend by a small group of presenters who abused the opportunity to engage with councillors and instead used it to "harass, bully, make defamatory comments and continuously promote misinformation, and to also make defamatory and derogatory comments continuously about members of our staff". While Councillors Innes, Brown, Thomson, Nathan, Tait, Constable and Pollock voted to remove webcasting, recording and archiving of Public Forum both Councillors Mayne and McGinlay valiantly sought to preserve it whilst also respecting the 13 submissions and eight presenters who spoke out against its removal. Councillor Mayne said after the vote of 7-2 "Our Council was a leader in this space; being an early adopter of this technology. Now we return to the pack, while Councils around us continue on with this live streaming. Why have we stopped! 50% of Councils still live stream their Public Forums. We are no longer a leader, as we take a large step backwards.So to the house bound, the disabled, the elderly, those working on a Tuesday, the media and so forth, you will no longer be able to watch your fellow community members present to Council. A record of their typed transcript will instead be placed on the Council site." The New World Order for Mayor Innes and her loosely formed voting block that is fast becoming known as the United Party now demands any speaker provide their written presentation 24 hours before to be vetted by the General Manager and for them to indicate if they are speaking FOR or AGAINST an agenda item and that, at the discretion of the General Manager they will be allowed to speak however if they appear to wish to say something of a nature that is considered inappropriate they will be advised to remove that part from their spoken presentation. It is not known if Council wil then BLACK out the bits they don't like before publishing the presentation to the website. Once a speaker-to-be submits their presentation they are advised not to deviate from it because only their presentation (if not redacted) will appear on Council's website and random comments or off the cuff statements will not be added. And should they fail to provide their presentation they will not be allowed to speak on the day or any time in the future. The New World Order, by way of Council's newly adopted Code of Meeting Practice, also gives further authority to the Mayor to 'assist' her in Chairing meetings. It turns out that the Mayor can expel anyone she wants from Council chambers if she considers, in her own opinion, that they are disorderly. Surprisingly at the last Council meeting the Mayor advised the gallery to not say “hear hear” if they agreed with a speaker and to not applaud speakers following their presentations. “Where on earth is the rule that you can’t say “hear hear” or applaud” came muffled exclamations from the gallery.
As it turns out there isn’t a rule but with the new Code of Meeting practice now adopted the Mayor can define whatever she wants as disorderly without explanation.
14.13 For the purposes of this Clause the question of disorderly conduct is at the discretion of the Chairperson In the newly adopted Code of Meeting practice it says: 3.18 When addressing the Council, speakers at public forums must comply with this code and all other relevant Council codes, policies and procedures. Speakers must refrain from engaging in disorderly conduct, publicly alleging breaches of the Council’s Code of Conduct or making other potentially defamatory statements 3.19: If the Chairperson considers that a speaker at a public forum has engaged in conduct of the type referred to in clause 3.18, the Chairperson may request the person to refrain from the inappropriate behaviour 3.20: Clause 3.19 does not limit the ability of the Chairperson to deal with disorderly conduct by speakers at public forums in accordance with the provisions of Part 14 of this code. Part 14 gives examples of Acts of disorder committed by Councillors (not the Public) however there is little doubt the Mayor would add these to her “discretion of the Chairperson” 14.14 Practice 4. Examples (in part) of disorderly conduct (from Councillors) could include, but are not limited to, the following (but the ultimate determination is at the Chairperson’s discretion): a. Audibly interrupts the conduct of the meeting; Does this mean that a Councillor is not allowed to say “hear hear” when agreeing with a fellow councilor? b. Behaves or acts in a manner which disrupts the conduct of the meeting or that is inconsistent with maintaining order at the meeting; Firstly, and pedantically, Council has clearly stated that Public Forum is NOT part of a Council meeting. As such saying “hear hear” or applauding a speakers presentation DOES NOT disrupt the conduct of a meeting because ….. it is not a meeting. “Hear Hear” is heard often in our house of Parliament and obviously is not considered by those who chair as being “disorderly”.
Only last week the Mayor led Councillors in a round of applause for local recipients of the Queen’s Birthday Honors and has also led the applause on many occasions for the efforts made by staff members to various tasks, events and awards. Applause is not unknown of in the chamber. Yet the Mayor, as Chair, on the very same day considered applause from the gallery, following a presentation by a speaker, as disorderly and instructed them on several occasions to desist. Does anyone other than the Mayor who might dare to applaud Behave or act in a manner which disrupts the conduct of the meeting ? Really Mayor? So what else might be considered disorderly by the Mayor? Under the Code of meeting Practice a Councillor would be considered disorderly if he/she: c. Holds up, waves or displays a placard, banner, sign or document, in a manner which disrupts the conduct of the meeting or that is inconsistent with maintaining order at the meeting; In coming months the Mayor and her Unity Party (AKA the Gang of Seven) will be facing rolling protests from ratepayers challenging Council’s decision over an array of matters. Many of those protesting will no doubt be wearing T-Shirts that display “a placard, banner, sign or document that the Mayor will likely rule inconsistent with maintaining order at the meeting”
Above: Some of the TShirts the Mayor might find in her gallery of ratepayers. Will the Mayor consider these TShirts as a placard, banner, sign or document, in a manner which disrupts the conduct of the meeting
Will they be found disorderly? It will be interesting to see as this is tested both in and outside the chambers. What if a Councillor says something obscure, funny or ludicrous as has been the case during many of the recent Council meetings? Will the gallery of ratepayers be deemed disorderly if they laugh out loud ? Will that see them acting disorderly by Behaving or acting in a manner which disrupts the conduct of the meeting And what if such an outburst comes from a Councillor during a speakers presentation as we have already seen? Will that speaker be considered disorderly for seeking a right of immediate reply or an apology? Under the rules a speaker can say nothing and to do so will most likely be found to be disorderly by the Mayor with the instruction "if you persist you will be asked to leave the chamber". Of equal concern beyond the fact that disorderly conduct is, at the discretion of the Chairperson, the 'bonus' of “Where a speaker engages in conduct of the type referred to in clause 3.18, the General Manager or their delegate may refuse further applications from that person to speak at public”. Note from Tuesday onwards that Public Forum will no longer be audio or video recorded nor will it be minuted in any detail so any claim by the Mayor of disorderly conduct, any action taken by her to demand any retraction, apology or withdrawal will be hearsay based on the word of the Mayor and not able to be challenged at all by the speaker who will have no evidence to prove otherwise. Is this power gone mad?
Can the Mayor get it wrong? Yes. Has she got it wrong before? Yes. In July 2013 it was alleged, without ant witness, that a member of the public bumped into a Councillor during a Council meeting.
While the incident was minuted it had no witnesses to the allegation. The request for the ban was not moved as a motion and Mr Potts was not asked for his side of the allegation. Four years and three months later Mr Potts (who was registered to speak) tried to speak at public forum at the 25 Nov ‘17 council meeting. He was promptly told by the Chair, “to be allowed back into the chamber we need an apology.” The Mayor had overstepped her authority. On the day however Mr Potts was not aware of the finer details of the rules in order to respond, he did not want to apologise as he believed that would offer an admission of guilt to something that did not happen so.... he left.
On investigation however by a supporter of Mr Potts it was found in regards to the allegation in 2013 that Council’s Code of Meeting Practice Section 5.10 (15) and (16) stated:
(15) “....... the person engaging in such behaviour(disorder) will be ruled out of order by the Chairperson and may be expelled from the meeting.”
(16) “If a presenter is asked to withdraw and/or apologise for comments or behaviour and refuses to do so, the Chairperson may expel them from the meeting, and the presenter will not be able to address Council until an apology has been made. For a presenter to be allowed to present again they must first apologise at a Council meeting, however will not be able to present at that same meeting.”
It is evident from the minutes of the June ‘13 meeting that:
* Mr Potts was not ruled ‘out of order’ by the Chair, nor was he ‘expelled from the meeting.’
* Mr Potts was not asked to ‘withdraw and/or apologise’ for his comments or behaviour at the meeting in 2013, therefore he was not (and could not be) expelled by the Chair for not doing so. The Mayor and her Council were duly advised by the Office of Local Government that the Council's Code of Meeting Practice that it was "unclear whether procedural requirements have been correctly applied" This is not the first time that the OLG "written to Council" in recent years in regards to procedural requirements, specifically around the purchase of the Batemans Bay Bowling Club site and the General Manager's contract renewal and remuneration.
Above: A response from the Office of Local Government to a complaint made against the Council
The case of Mr Potts and the subsequent actions by Council are of concern however there is every opportunity now for history of misadministration to repeat. Most alarming now, following Council’s recent decision to remove video or audio recording of Public Forum, is that a member of the public can be moved to be banned from attending council meetings, due entirely to determination from the Chair that they were disorderly and that the General Manager can then ban that speaker from presenting at Public Forum or Public Access in future.