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Council needs to have a rethink on Public Forum

Last week The Beagle reported on Council's revamped Public Access sessions that are now once a month (rather than once a fortnight). These sessions are where the community can address Council on any subject. We revealed that councillors were not required to attend and while Councillors could ask questions of the presenters they were not allowed to ask questions of Council staff even though there were thirteen members of staff present. Having established on at that Public Access session (confirmed by Acting General Manager Arthur) that the session was being conducted under the rules set down by Council's Code of Meeting Practice The Beagle formally requested that the Mayor provide evidence of the 'new' ruling regarding Councillors NOT being able to ask questions of staff and the absolute reference to exactly what is stated, and where it is stated, in relation to Councillors not being able to ask staff questions during Public Access.  A week later there is still no response. Now we move on to the farce that has become Public Forum. Under the new rules Public Forum (where the community can present for seven minutes on agenda items of the day's Council meeting) is held at 9:30am and allocated one hour. Councillors then take a half-hour break and return to chambers at the new time of 11am. While the Councillors are advised if there is a Public Forum speaker registered the public are not. Fortunately for two good citizens today who arrived ready to hear Public Forum speakers there was one presenter. At this point it is essential to remind readers that Council recently removed live streaming and recording of these sessions so the only way the community might come to learn what questions Councillors asked of speakers is to witness it first hand. The presenter today delivered a presentation on behalf of another. As it was a statement by another the presenter was not allowed to be questioned by Councillors. The presentation took three minutes. Three minutes of an allocated one hour given to Public Forum. The first issue about the folly of today's session comes from the fact that Council does not communicate with the community advising them if there is anyone registered to speak at either Public Access or Public Forum. Councillors are informed 24 hours before however this courtesy is not extended to the community who have to arrive in a hope that somebody might be presenting.

The second issue on this is that the Council meeting begins an hour later at 11am under the new time. Driving from Narooma, Nelligen or even Tuross Head on the off-chance that there is a presenter and then staying in town for another hour and a half from the 9:30am Public Forum to the 11am Council meeting puts an entirely new light on civic interest. The inevitable result will be that there will be a marked decrease in those attending Public Forum (as was the case today with just one resident and one Beagle representative). The second issue of today and the one that has bought the ire of The Beagle is that while the presenter today read a statement that meant Councillors could not ask questions formally the Mayor advised them they could ask questions of the presenter at the end of the session. This suggestion was taken up by Councillor Mayne who spoke with the presenter and the two gallery members. He was shortly joined by Councillor Brown. It is of interest that this week is Local Government Week and across NSW the community is encouraged to engage with their councillors. Today, waiting patiently for Councillor Mayne to finish speaking with the presenter over matters around the Moruya South Head cycleway this editor had additional questions for both Councillor Mayne and the presenter around an element of the statement that had been read and the issues around the failures of the new Public Forum sessions. The questions however were nipped in the bud by a senior staff member who stepped in and coralled the two Councillors to a 'briefing session' with an urgency. Councillors do attend a briefing session prior to a Council meeting and that is exactly what the time allocated between 10:30am and 11am is for. In today's instance we have a presenter address Council at 9:30am for 3 minutes and then at 9: 46am staff intervene into 'free time' of interchange between councillors and members of the public to rush them off.

To say that the morning was a mockery of open inviting communication between Council and its community, especially during Local Government week, is an understatement.

A comment from a member of the community on The Beagle shares the same sentiments: "The changed times do make it more difficult for members of the community to attend, having to devote more of the middle of the day to attend whereas the old times meant that most of the later part of the day would be available for other activities. It should be pointed out that no-one will know if there will be any public forum speakers so a 9.30am arrival time could be in vain and that the gap between public forum's time allocation and the main meeting's commencement will in any case leave some thumb twiddling time.  Are the new times set deliberately to deter community engagement?"

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