A heated debate over the Draft Code of Meeting Practice was a feature of this week’s Eurobodalla Shire Council meeting.
In proposing the Draft Code, General Manager Dr Catherine Dale is looking to bring the Eurobodalla in line with advice from the Office of Local Government (OLG). However, several speakers slammed the changes as “backwards.”
In essence, the 62 page Draft Code updates the rules of debate and discussion at Council. This week’s meeting agreed to place the document on public exhibition for 42 days from early next month.
The main bone of contention is the proposal to end the practice of live streaming/webcasting presentations from the community to Council, known as the ‘public forum’.
Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting were concerned that meant proceedings would not be “on the record.”
Speaking in support of the draft, Mayor Liz Innes suggested, “People don’t come to council, as they don’t want their presentations webcast. People may be put off [by the live stream].”
It’s also recommended that speakers be limited to five minutes with no extension, provide a written copy of their address the day before the meeting and that the ‘public access’ hearing prior to each meeting be scraped.
The ‘public access’ time allows members of the community to address Council on any topic, where the ‘public forum’ requires speakers to address matters listed on that day’s meeting agenda. The forum is currently streamed while the access session is not.
Those who addressed Tuesday’s meeting on the issue described the Draft Code as “underhand, unscrupulous and unprincipled.”
Lei Parker, editor of community news and opinions website ‘The Beagle said: “By [the public forum] not being recorded, it removes public evidence.”
Patricia Helier from Batemans Bay acknowledged that the changes were still in draft form, but “Removing the live stream is a form of discrimination.”
“How many of you stood on a platform of transparency?” Ms Helier asked councillors.
Long-time Council watcher, Peter Bernard described the Draft Code as an “instrument to suit the bureaucracy.”
“It suppresses unelected people from expressing their concerns.”
Speaking with Region Media, Dr Dale believes Council already has strong mechanisms in place for the voice of the community to be heard.
“The Office of Local Government says the starting point is having a strong community engagement framework in place, which this Council does,” Dr Dale says.
“People have an absolute right to put in their views from the very start to the very end, the public forum will still exist but [under the draft code] it sits outside of the formal meeting process [and as such there is no requirement to webcast that time] which is what OLG says should be the case.”
Dr Dale says addresses to Council will still be ‘on the record’ because the written submission each speaker provides and Council’s subsequent response will be documented.
When the motion was discussed by the councillors at this week’s meeting, 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.”
“What this draft does is bring us to the back of the pack, where we have been actually excelling.”
According to Cr Anthony Mayne, “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.”
In the end, the motion Council adopted was to ‘submit’ rather than ‘endorse’ the draft Code of Meeting Practice for public exhibition, a subtle change to the original motion lead by Cr Phil Constable.
“It might be semantics to some but [we should not be] closing off the possibility to modifications to the code,” he said.
“We have heard today some very passionate speakers. We’re not ramming [this] down the community’s throat.”
What isn’t explicit in this discussion so far is a growing toxicity in the tone and shape of debate at Eurobodalla Shire Council meetings. Region Media is aware of wide concern within Council and the community of people feeling bullied, and at times hurt by inappropriate behaviour, statements, and grandstanding.
Perhaps they are matters that will emerge in the feedback phase of this draft document that is about to start.
The draft Code of Meeting Practice will be on public exhibition from April 3, submissions will be accepted until May 15. A further report will be presented to Council on June 11 to consider the adoption of the draft Code of Meeting Practice.
Copies will be available via Council’s website, at the Batemans Bay, Moruya and Narooma libraries and Moruya Customer Service Centre.
Words by Alex Rea and Ian Campbell.