Welcome to this week’s editorial,
It turns out that the Eurobodalla Council Executive and Councillors don’t give a rats bum for the opinion of their community and have now effectively cut them out of the democratic process by a sleight of hand.
Once members of our community could attend a Council meeting and listen to residents and ratepayers present their concerns in Public Access over ANY matter in the shire for 5 minutes. Noisy dogs, big sharp stone asphalt being laid in local streets hurting feet and kangaroos, poor facilities in parks. This was the face of democracy where anyone could address the council, rich or poor. And it happened once a fortnight before the council meeting.
Directly following the Public Access came the more formal Public Forum session where the community could address councillors on the agenda of the day’s council meeting. This was a far more important session where the community might offer final statements before Councillors made decisions that would affect lives and property. It was important enough that Council decided several years ago to live streamed it and also recorded it for archive so anyone could watch. Some of the more contentious issues, such as the recent Rural Lands Strategy, saw the public gallery of the Council chambers packed with members of the community who came to hear the speakers for and against. For those who couldn’t make it there was live streaming and archives. Here was the perfect example of democracy. Eurobodalla was one of the first to Live Stream Public Forum. Everyone applauded their decision and now live-stream their own Public Access sessions.
Sadly that open inclusive democracy is no more under the reign of Mayor Innes.
In a decision this year made by Mayor Innes and her majority voting block the decision was made to remove Live Streaming of Public Forum, to set it with a new starting time that requires more effort on the part of the community to attend both Forum and Council meeting and to relegate Public Access to only once a month.
As usual the champions of open transparent democracy (Councillors Mayne and McGinlay) protested the proposal however their protest fell on deaf ears. The Public Forum session at that council meeting became the last to be live streamed and those watching would have seen one speaker after another lining up to call out council for even considering removing what had been a hard fought for gain for the wider community.
When the motion was debated by the councillors Cr Pat McGinley said, “It’s quite embarrassing that we should ask the public to give us their comments, on us taking away their rights of representation and being heard.” Cr Anthony Mayne added “we seem to be taking a step to shut down a critical interface. We are elected to hear the voice of our community. This runs the risk of sending a negative image of what this council is representing.”
Mayor Liz Innes said of her decision that 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".
In part this is true. There is a small, very well informed section of the community who take the opportunity to engage the councillors directly, in chamber, and present fact after fact. They are consistent with their deliveries (where a weaker person might deem it harassment), they are insistent (which might translate as bullying to a weaker person) and certainly the remarks they make around the expectations of Councillors and senior Council staff may be considered ‘defamatory’ by the Mayor yet no case has been raised nor any proven. The comments may well be derogatory, often and justifiably showing a critical (and sometimes deemed disrespectful attitude to those in charge who may have failed in their duties of office) but rarely if ever do the Public Forum presentations promote misinformation as most speakers, if not all, direct Councillors to policies, guidelines and Acts that they need to consider in making their decisions that are in addition to the ‘briefings’ they receive from staff.
In the recent reworking of the rules of Public Access and Public Forum the councillors also agreed to add a few more hurdles to make it all the harder for presenters.
Now a presenter MUST prepare and provide their presentation by noon the day before. The presenter needs to advise if they are speaking for the matter or against. There is to be no deviation from the presentation. It must be read and delivered in seven minutes with no extra time given. As Public Access and Public Forum are not part of a formal meeting Councillors are not obliged to attend.
Councillors are informed the day before if anyone has registered to attend and if so they are provided the presentations to read, if they choose, beforehand. Most don’t. Councillors might then chose to ask questions of the presenter after the presentation, however, most don’t. Presenters are not permitted to ask questions of Councillors.
In general the body language of councillors during these Public sessions is poor and disdainful. On the odd occasion when the Mayor or one of her cohort does ask a question it is in the form of “did you know?” followed by a scything counter attack of the presentation, most often it would appear, to be scripted before the meeting in briefings.
It is no wonder that the community have walked away from what was once a shining light for democracy in Eurobodalla and a leading light for councils across the state who looked at our example.
With no-one attending the re-designed Public Access and Public Forum sessions the Mayor and her cohorts may well believe they have won by removing two opportunities for anyone who might challenge her and her council. The Mayor and General Manager might now feel that they have regained control of the narrative and by simply pumping out good news stories in the media the community will soon forget the major issues in the lead up to the next election in September 2020 and might vote for the same mob to return unchallenged.
Unfortunately for the Mayor and her cohorts that small group of very well informed community members are also more than capable of communicating outside of the Public Access and Public Forum sessions and have taken to a much wider platform of Social Media, print media and radio to deliver a somewhat different version of ‘Facts’ revealing that the councillors are basically kept in the dark, have little if any control and that the Good Ship Lollypop, which the Council has become, is being steered towards some very rocky shoals by the Mayor and senior staff who refuse to veer from their course.
Over the coming months there will be much more revealed of the failures of this cohort of councillors. This voting block that have rubber stamped all put before them choosing to ignore the community and to remove their voice. But the loss of the Mayor and her obsequious cohorts will make no difference to the senior officers at the helm who will simply jump ship and take on a new crew of naïve and gullible sailors looking to try out their sea legs on the next four year voyage.
Until next Lei