Council Public Access: if it ain't broke..
Tuesday 23rd July saw the Mayor welcome those in the Council chambers to the FIRST Public Access session. It would have been reasonable for someone to explain to the Mayor that it was not the FIRST Public Access session and that such access had been availble to the public for many years before her time. What she most likely was referring to was that this was the FIRST session under her command that was now held monthly instead of fortnightly. And how did the FIRST monthly session go? Before the two speakers addressing the session began there was clarity sought around why four councillors were missing where it was confirmed that Pubic Access sessions are not mandatory for councillors to attend unlike Council meetings. While she offered apologies for the four missing councillors this was a token gesture as apologies are not required to be lodged. Having established that the Public Access session was not a 'meeting' the Mayor was asked if the session was being conducted under the rules of Council's very formal Code of Meeting practice to which the acting General Manger confirmed that it was even though advice from the Office of Local Government known to Council suggested otherwise. So with confirmation that the session was being conducted under the rules of Council's Code of Meeting practice it was surprising to hear the Mayor's preamble at the start of the session that had her clearly advise that presenters could NOT ask questions of Councillors and that Councillors could NOT ask questions of staff. The rule actually states: 3.17 Speakers at public forums cannot ask questions of the Council, Councillors or Council staff.
Having established on Tuesday (confirmed by Acting General Manager Arthur) that the Public Access session was being conducted under the rules set down by Council's Code of Meeting Practice evidence of the Mayor's 'new' rule has been requested. The rule of Councillors not being able to ask staff questions in regards to matters that arise from Public Access presentations lead those in the gallery to wonder why then there were thirteen staff in attendance at the Public Access Session on Tuesday.
With the exception of the the General Manager, a secretary and the Public Officer there is no justification why ten other staff members were present if neither the presenters or the Councillors are allowed to ask them questions.
As required by the new 'rules' presenters are required to provide their presentations 24 hours before the Public Access session which means that staff (and members of the Executive Team) need NOT attend to simply hear a presentation read out.
Council might well respond that the staff are there as a matter of their own interest or to 'pack the room' and make the sessions appear less intimate however with ten staff occupied for an hour as a silent audience. To do so at an estimated cost of $700 per hour in staff time does make you wonder if this is ratepayer money well spent. So was the FIRST monthly public Access session a success? In terms of the end resultant that saw the Mayor offer a one on one meeting over an issue raised it was a good result. In reality though the Public Access session was used by the two speakers (on the same issue) simply because Council had failed in open and transparent communication and the presentations were a final attempt to find resolution to a matter that had been drawn out, poorly handled and had left the councillors ill advised. The Public Access sessions as they now stand are a long way down from what the community once had. Public Access used to be for half an hour, held on the morning of a Council meeting that REQUIRED Councillors to attend which meant that the sessions were well attended by Councillors. Issues raised in Public Access could also result in an URGENT MATTER being raised during the Council meeting of that day. As for the public attendance Tuesday's session was poor with just two presenters, four family support members and a regular attendee sitting lonely in the back row. Prior to the NEW monthly schedule Public Access was well attended as it tied together with the more formal Public Access session followed by the Council meeting. There is little doubt that the Public Access sessions will be poorly attended and without any 'teeth', constrained by rules, will be rarely used. And therein lies the question..... was this the intent of Council?