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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Council briefings: Unseen, Unheard and no witnesses (or dogs) allowed to monitor compliance

It is well known that Councillors MUST not use pre-meeting briefing sessions to debate or make preliminary decisions on items of business they are being briefed on, and any debate and decision-making MUST be left to the formal Council or committee meeting at which the item of business is to be considered. What is however becoming more clear is that Eurobodalla Council is pretty much doing the opposite as there is very little debate and decision-making taking place in the chamber and all too often we are hearing from Councillors that they had already had considerable decision in briefings. All too often it has become more than apparent that Councillors have come into the chamber having already made up their minds with this being evidenced by their dismissal of public forum presentations, most often offering sound advice and guidance that is contrary to the information being provided by staff at briefings. But what information is being offered by staff at briefings? No one knows because the public are not allowed to attend. This denial of allowing the public or media to attend briefings also guarantees that there are no witnesses to seeing Councillors making preliminary decisions on items of business before they enter the chamber to listen to Public Forum presenters. So who is keeping them honest and ensuring that they comply with the rules? No-one. And why not? During the exhibition of the draft Code of Meeting Practice, the public submissions Council received raised a number of issues including public forum clauses, removal of webcast from public forum, removal of public access, briefing sessions and for and against voting. The OLG, in regards to the Briefing sessions offered the suggestion that general practice of Councils was that the public weren’t invited to briefing sessions. This suggestion was that if Council wanted to stop the public from attending they could however it was not a direction and was not mandatory under the new Code. Eurobodalla Council received a submission that stated: 2.51 Pre-meeting briefing sessions are to be held in the absence of the public I object to this clause and request that it be amended to read “Members of the public may attend pre-meeting briefing sessions, except for that part of the briefing sessions which deals with confidential matters.” There is no justification provided for this ‘closed meetings approach’ in the report to council dated 26 March 2019, except for the statement that “Staff support this optional rule”. There is surely nothing to hide from the public during these pre -meeting briefings – since that would make it confidential. As the clause reads, it would appear that every pre - briefing session deals with confidential information. These sessions involve the community’s representatives being briefed by staff. It is therefore not only appropriate that the public be able to be present but it is necessary, if council is to adopt best practice when it comes to communicating with the community it is answerable to. Council’s response : Not supported. The draft Code of Meeting Practice has followed OLG’s non-mandatory provisions which are considered best practice. Pre -meeting briefings have been current practice at this Council for a number of years. It is important to note that in many cases the information discussed during briefing sessions contains personal and financial information that is confidential. Therefore it is not appropriate for these sessions to be open to the public.

In Jim Bright’s presentation to Council on June 11th 2019 he asked: What exactly is this Best Practice that the OLG refers to? Mr Bright then offered the following to the councillors in case they hadn’t asked staff for an explanation of the term so widely used in their report as justification for inclusion of non-mandatory elements in the new Code of Meeting Practice.

Mr Bright : “As even a quick perusal of the Staff Report and of the staff's responses to the public submissions (Appendix A) will reveal, the bulk of our council staff's positions on various aspects of their recommendations is based upon the apparently ready acceptance by them that OLG's non-mandatory suggestions actually do represent some type of “best practice”.

“The “best practice” concept has largely been introduced into various parts of the Australian public sector from the private sector over the last thirty years or so. In the public sector environment, the classification of a particular management practice as being “best practice” would generally result from a process involving an initial survey within a particular area of activity (say the local government area) to identify those organisations that are achieving the best outcomes for the communities that they serve and are responsible for in certain areas of their activities. “After identifying the top performers, the next step is to carefully analyse and 'drill down' into the operations of those organisations in order to reach an understanding of the internal practices that produce the desirable outcomes. This information on “best practice” would then be made available to other relevant organisations for their consideration.

“My assessment of the available facts and information would suggest to me that OLG has not made the case for its claims that its views on non-mandatory meeting practices justify its adoption of the term “best practice”. My observation and analysis, over the last few years, of OLG's propensity to frequently and conveniently label its particular views as representing “best practice” is probably nothing other than a way of 'tarting up' those views in order to induce acceptance of them and to discourage challenges to them.

“There is no evidence that I can find on the OLG website to suggest that any reasonable type of “best practice” identification process has in fact been undertaken by OLG in recent years. The 'stakeholder' consultation process that it undertook during 2018 in the lead up to the issuing of its new model code last December was not a “best practice” identification process. I expect that what is claimed by OLG to be “best practice” is probably little more than the views of some officers in the Council Governance Unit of OLG.” So there you have it. Council staff don’t want the public in meetings so they have resorted to saying it is OLG best Practice and that is all the justification they need.

While it is understood that there might be a confidential matter on the agenda and that the public and media would be requested to leave the session (as is the case of a formal meeting) what justification is there to not allow the public or media to be present at briefings.

In the case of Eurobodalla Council it is now more than evident that there has been considerable discussion undertaken in briefings resulting in little if any discussion or debate by the time the agenda item comes to the chamber. Evience of this wider discussion behind closed doors comes via Councillors McGinlay, Constable, Mayne and Brown who have made reference to discussions and debate during briefing sessions. Having an observer witness present at a briefing would ensure that Councillors not use pre-meeting briefing sessions to debate or make preliminary decisions on items of business they are being briefed on, and any debate and decision-making must be left to the formal council or committee meeting at which the item of business is to be considered. Without the public and media present there can be no assurity of compliance.

Above: In the Motu region of PNG dogs are allowed in courts of law to ensure no one lies as dogs are the reincarnated soul of ancestors and you can not lie to a dog. All council meetings and briefings SHOULD have a dog

But what of other councils? Do they ban the public from briefings. No One example is the very forward thinking and progressive Lismore Council in their CODE OF MEETING PRACTICE they adopted on 11 June 2019 It states: Pre-meeting briefing sessions 3.32 Council manages pre-meeting Briefing sessions in line with policy 1.2.20 Council Briefings Policy When you go to their Council Briefings Policy it states:

3.0 Public Access and Participation at Scheduled Briefings Policy manual 3.1 Briefings are open to the public. Briefings may be closed to the public at the discretion of the General Manager only on occasions where Council is considering information which, by its nature, is confidential and ought not to be publicly disclosed, and consistent with the provisions for closing meetings to the public under the Local Government Act 1993. 3.2 Briefings which are planned to be open to the public will be advertised in Council’s Newsletter/Council’s website. 3.3 Questions to and from members of the public present at Briefings may be directed through and be at the discretion of the Chairperson. Remember now that Eurobodalla Council clearly states: 3.33 Pre-meeting briefing sessions are to be held in the absence of the public. The question now remains “What do they have to hide?” and “How can we, as a community have faith that councillors, during briefings are NOT making preliminary decisions on items of business.” While it is known that the General Manager reiterates this requirement several times during briefings as she is required to do there is building evidence that all too many decisions are being made in corridors and back rooms Unseen and Unheard.

NOTE: Comments were TRIALED - in the end it failed as humans will be humans and it turned into a pile of merde; only contributed to by just a handful who did little to add to the conversation of the issue at hand. Anyone who would like to contribute an opinion are encouraged to send in a Letter to the Editor where it might be considered for publication

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