Presentation: Council's Code of Meeting Practice
A Better Eurobodalla presentation to Eurobodalla Shire Council
public access session
on Code of Meeting Practice
25 July 2023
I am presenting today as the Co-convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum working to achieve open, accountable and responsive government in Eurobodalla.
ABE has applied our principles of good governance to a recent issue of amendments to the ESC Code of Meeting Practice.
ABE has been an active participant in the process of reviewing and amending the previous Code of Meeting Practice (the code), making submissions, presenting to Council, attending the formal workshop, and writing to and meeting with the general manager. As such I feel qualified to reflect on what has happened and comment on the way forward. The issue I am addressing is about the use of the words ‘encourage’ or ‘must’ as it relates to members of the public being obliged to provide a copy of their presentations 24 hours in advance of presenting to Public Access or Public Forums.
I understand that either today or at a meeting soon councillors will be asked to consider a way forward.
To briefly reflect on the history of this issue:
In May 2022 councillors were asked to decide on the terms of the draft meeting code that was to go on exhibition for a minimum period of 42 days as required within 12 months of the election of a new council
Against the then GM’s recommendation, the newly elected councillors voted unanimously to drop requirement for the advance submission of Public Forum and Access presentations from the draft new code to go on public exhibition. This issue had also been closely debated by the previous Council with considerable community engagement
In September 2022 after the community consultation process, the councillors approved the Council’s new code which included that advance copies of presentations be encouraged rather than required.
At the 28 February 2023 ESC meeting the new GM proposed several changes to the existing meeting code, including a reduction in the frequency of meetings to one per month. No mention in the relevant staff report, or the associated draft of the proposed new code, of any proposal to revert to providing an advance copy of a presentation. As required by s.361 of the LG Act, this draft revised meeting code went on public exhibition from 1/3/23 to 11/4/23.
To the recent 27 June ESC meeting where again, in the staff report in the business papers for this meeting, no mention was made of any reinstatement of the previously abandoned requirement for the advance submission of Public Forum and Access presentations.
However, the day before the meeting, I noticed that this requirement had reappeared in the code that was attached to that staff report. I immediately brought that to the attention of some of the councillors.
When several councillors then protested at the meeting about the reinsertion of this requirement into the meeting code without the legally required public notice having occurred, the Mayor and the GM stated (on advice from the Public Officer) that that proposed change had, in fact, been in the consultation draft that had been publicly exhibited in March and April.
This statement was untrue and importantly has since been apologised for by the GM.
The webcast reveals some confusion then ensued. An amendment was proposed by Clr Schutz and voted on. I am aware that at least one councillor, and possibly more, accepted and voted on the amendment based on the incorrect advice that the public had been invited to and so had an opportunity to comment on a proposed change to that particular aspect of the code.
So to now, where the governance issue is not resolved by an apology and or commitment to this not happening again. There is a legal requirement as previously noted and for that particular proposed change to the code, the legally required period of public exhibition had, in fact, not occurred.
This is not a storm in a teacup, or an attempt to make unnecessary work for council staff. We, the public, and councillors, rely on correct information being provided so the best decisions can be made.
Whatever the reason that incorrect advice was given to councillors, good governance requires that Council are given the opportunity to reconsider the Code of Meeting Practice based on correct advice in relation to this particular issue of what was contained in the consultation version. A simple reconsideration of that aspect, reverting to the use of ‘encourage’ as included in the consultation draft, is required.
I take you back to the recent reconsideration by Council of the creative arts policy document. Initially incorrect advice that no submissions were received on the consultation draft was provided to councillors by staff. The Council made a decision based on this incorrect advice. This was subsequently drawn to the attention of staff and as a result, quite correctly, the matter was brought back to Council and reconsidered with the correct advice from the staff about the consultation results. No drama, a correction, a reconsideration and a resolution.
Errors happen and staff, and the council, must own errors when they occur and correct the record and any decisions made. This issue will not go away with an apology because legal requirements must be met. Good governance relies on complying with legal requirements and on decision making that is based on truthful information.