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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Pub Test: OLG endorses unwritten protocols 'agreed and accepted' behind closed doors

Eurobodalla Shire Council has had its practices governing the putting of questions to speakers at the Public Access and Public Forums referred to the Office of Local Government for clarification. Offering her own clarification, General Manager Dr Catherine Dale said :

"Council’s protocol is to allow questions of presenters when they are able to demonstrate that they conclusively represent the organisation to which they refer in their submission to Council. This is demonstrated, for example, by the presenter being the convenor or co-convenor, president or member of the executive body. This provides both certainty for the Councillors and also does not place undue pressure on the speaker with the expectation that they would fully know and be able to articulate the views of the group they are speaking for.

For example, prior to this protocol being introduced, there was an incident where a presenter purported to be representing a group and spoke at Council on behalf of that organisation. Council was later informed by a member of the group’s executive that the presenter in question did not speak on behalf of that group and did not represent their views on the particular matter in question.

The protocol that has now in place for some years makes it clearer for all participants, including members of the public and Councillors." But Dr Dale has been found to be wanting on several occasions in her understanding of the NSW Local Government Act. And within that Act there is nothing that allows such "protocols" to be established. Adding to the General Manager's statement was the throw away line from Deputy Mayor Rob Pollock last week who said on the issue 'If you ask the Department of Local Government, they WILL tell you they are silent on the matter....'. So we asked the OLG, and this is what they officially say:


The OLG also responded to a ratepayer who asked for similar clarification:

The Office of Local Government (OLG) understands that as a matter of local practice, the Council only permits questions to be asked of speakers at public forums where they can demonstrate that they represent the organisation they purport to be speaking for. OLG understands that this practice was introduced after an incident in which someone who purported to speak for an organisation was subsequently found not to be connected with the organisation and had not accurately reflected its views.

OLG does not consider this requirement to be unreasonable given the circumstances that have prompted the Council to apply the practice. While the practice may not be formally documented, this does not mean that it cannot be applied by the Council as an agreed and accepted practice at its meetings.

The Council is required to review its code of meeting practice within 12 months of the next election in consultation with the community and it will be open to the Council then to update the rules governing public forums to reflect this practice should it choose to do so. Let's dissect this: "While the practice may not be formally documented, this does not mean that it cannot be applied by the Council as an agreed and accepted practice at its meetings." Exactly when did an unspoken protocol become an agreed and accepted practice? Exactly who agreed, and exactly what practice did they agree to? "OLG understands that this practice was introduced after an incident in which someone who purported to speak for an organisation .." When exactly did this incident take place? Who from Council advised the OLG that an incident took place in order that they might "understand". "the Council only permits questions to be asked of speakers at public forums where they can demonstrate that they represent the organisation they purport to be speaking for" Why then did Council allow Bernie O'Neil, a convener of ABE, to be questioned one week yet said Brett Stevenson , a convener of ABE, could not? Why did Council deny questions to be asked of Simon Cox, who clearly stated he was a spokesperson for a group? The Office of Local Government, by their understanding that the protocol is a matter of local practice that is not be formally documented basically endorses every other unwritten protocol that Council have determined is an "agreed and accepted practice". As these "agreed and accepted practice" 's are neither agreed to, nor accepted in Council Chamber under public scrutiny, and placed on public record, one can only assume they are agreed and accepted behind closed doors. And if they are in fact an agreed and accepted practice then why is it that our Councillors are not aware of the practice and ask for clarification around who they can, and can not ask questions of. It repeats the question "Who agreed and accepted the practice and exactly what did they agree to?" Yet the OLG sees nothing wrong with this, saying that because a protocol is neither written or recorded "this does not mean that it cannot be applied by the Council as an agreed and accepted practice at its meetings." The local group, A Better Eurobodalla (ABE) wrote to Council seeking clarification: ABE notes that similar rulings have also affected recent ABE presentations to Council, and so now seeks formal written advice from you outlining: 1) Relevant provisions of Council’s Code of Meeting Conduct being used as the basis for

your rulings regarding the restrictions on Councillors questions spokespeople who

present on behalf of groups; Council responded: The ruling at the Public Access session on 17 August 2021 was based on Council protocols and is not part of Council’s Code of Meeting Practice. 2) The basis for how these provisions are being applied to Public Access and Public Forum

sessions.

Council responded: Council’s protocol is to allow questions of presenters when they are able to demonstrate that they conclusively represent the organisation to which they refer in

their submission to Council. This is demonstrated, for example, by the presenter being

the Convenor or Co-convenor, President or member of the executive body. This

provides both certainty for the Councillors and also does not place undue pressure on

the speaker with the expectation that they would fully know and be able to articulate

the views of the group they are speaking for. Dr Dale, in her response is very clear in the details of the "protocol" and even adds in her response to ABE: "The protocol that has now [sic] in place for some years makes it clearer for all participants,

including members of the public and Councillors". Dr Dale advises that the Protocol has been in place for some years. If this is the case then why wasn't it mentioned when Council last updated their Code of Meeting Practice in June 2019. And where exactly is it "in place" so as to be accessible to "make it clearer for all participants including members of the public and councillors"? That code states (in part) :

Above: There is no mention of any unwritten protocol in Council's Code of Meeting Practice regarding who can, and can't be asked questions by a councilor. So there it is. - The OLG appear not to give a sh*t. The fact that this unspoken "protocol", unknown to anyone including councillors is being played at discretion (and inconsistently) by the General Manager doesn't seem to phase them. This is what the OLG claims to represent:

- The Eurobodalla General Manager can claim without evidence an "incident in which someone who purported to speak for an organisation" - The unwritten protocol all of a sudden has become quite detailed and precise by the hand of the General Manager yet three councillors advise The Beagle they have never agreed to such a protocol nor accepted it. "Bollocks".... Does that make The Protocol the General Manager's protocol. Has the General Manager once again overstepped her authority by making up her own rules? Does this pass your Pub Test?


Comments


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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