LAST week’s South Gippsland Shire Council meeting didn’t start well.
Hardly had the preliminaries been dispensed with than the Mayor Cr Bob Newton set a cat amongst the pigeons by ruling out of order a Notice of Motion, lodged in accordance with meeting procedure, by Cr Don Hill.
Local council watchers could not recall such a ruling ever being made by a mayor or council president in South Gippsland.
And what was so terrible, so heinous that it couldn’t be debated in open council?
Was someone’s parentage being questioned?
Was someone being accused of theft, corruption or skulduggery?
Had someone been jostled with or spat on by ratepayers?
No, it was all pretty lame really – or certainly appeared to be.
Here’s what Cr Hill wanted debated:
“That Council receive a report at the July 27, 2016 Ordinary Council
Meeting exploring the following options: 1. Live streaming of the Open Special and Ordinary Council Meetings of South Gippsland Shire Council directly to the internet, as is now occurring at some other councils within Australia. 2. Implementing a question time section for councillors at each Council Meeting alongside the existing question time for ratepayers. (The purpose of which is to be able to hold council accountable in open council as occurs at all other levels of government within Australia). 3. Implementation of annual training for Mayors/Chairs on correct interpretation of the Local Law and how to treat all councillors equally and fairly as detailed within the panel report received at April 27, 2016 meeting in point 84.
‘Point 84’ relates to one of the findings handed down by the Councillor Conduct Panel inquiry into the conduct of South Gippsland’s councillors in April this year, to the effect that “the Mayor and Chairs of all committees receive annual training in the application of meeting procedures and their importance in achieving good governance outcomes”, among other things.
“I’ve made a ruling and I will not be accepting it,” said Cr Newton.
“It’s in breach of local law 48 in that it is ‘objectionable in language, nature or intent’.”
Under Local Law No. 3 Processes of Local Government (Division 2, Motions, No. 48 Chair’s Duty: “Any motion or amendment which (a) is defamatory; or (b) is objectionable in language, nature or intent; or (c) is outside the powers of the Council; or (d) is not relevant to the item of business on the agenda and has not been admitted as urgent business; or (e) purports to be an amendment but is not – must not be accepted by the Chair.
Cr Newton said an investigation was already being made into live streaming by the CEO, he said council had already made a decision about councillors asking questions in open council and training of mayors and councillors was already being done.
But Cr Hill protested saying that the CEO had already accepted the Notice of Motion and that the Mayor’s ruling only related to motions that were put on the day.
“This didn’t come up on the day. The CEO had already accepted it into the agenda.
“I can make a ruling on the day not to accept a Notice of Motion if I feel the intent is objectionable. The council already is open and transparent,” Cr Newton said.
Cr Hill asked why the Mayor hadn’t raised the matter at the councillor-only session in the morning.
Cr Kennedy also weighed in asking why the CEO had accepted the motion in first place.
“I believe the CEO has to accept Notices of Motion.”
Whatever the case, the matter did not proceed and both Crs Hill and McEwen said outside the chamber later that it was simply an effort to gag them as councillors.
Cr Hill said there had not been a vote of council to decide that there would be no councillor questions.
He said the benefit of allowing councillors to ask questions was that matters of concern could be placed on the public record and answered on the public record.
“It has become apparent during this council that governance standards have reduced and council is arguably less transparent in its decision making processes nowadays,” Cr Hill said.
“At a time when other councils are beginning to implement a more open and transparent process for council meetings, at South Gippsland we are making more decisions in closed meetings and limiting the ability of open council to both question decisions and motions that come before council.
“We have for example decided by majority opinion not to allow individual councillors to ask questions during question time despite this being normal practice for at least the last eight years of recorded council minutes. This decision was not taken at an open council meeting – it was determined by a ‘straw poll’ in a closed council/executive session; a practice frowned upon by the Local Government Ombudsman.”
So bad the mayor just wouldn’t talk about it