By Michael Giles
HYPOCRISY is alive and well on the South Gippsland Shire Council.
At last week’s council meeting, Cr Don Hill appeared to be standing up for “open and transparent” local government when he called for more of council’s decisions to be open to the public.
“I make the point, if we keep making these meetings confidential, we won’t be able to talk to the community about anything. On the ‘My Council’ website it said we had increased our closed meetings by 35 per cent since council came to office. We are already way over what others are doing. We need to make sure that while some meetings are confidential, the rest are open so we can talk about things,” he said last Wednesday.
It’s a commendable sentiment and it’s a subject about which he regularly beats the drum.
At the same meeting, council agreed to move on another measure Cr Hill has called for, live-streaming of meetings.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said.
That’s true. The Wellington Shire Council at Sale has live-streamed its meetings on the Internet for more than a decade.
But, oh dear, Cr Hill wasn’t telling the community everything.
At the same time as he was calling on council to be open and transparent, he was also taking action to ensure that exactly the opposite was the case.
Still smarting from the public release of an ‘Open Letter to Councillors’, issued by him to his colleagues on November 8, 2016, brow-beating them about their intention to vote in Ray Argento as the new mayor, and shock-horror, a woman as deputy mayor; he fired in a Freedom of Information request.
He wanted to find out which councillor had forwarded the email on to a third party.
The result of the FOI came back last week, revealing that Cr Lorraine Brunt had forwarded his nasty email on to two former South Gippsland Mayors, James Fawcett and Jim Forbes, seeking their guidance.
There’s no indication that either one of those people did anything further about it, much less send the ‘Open Letter’ on to the Sentinel-Times where it was published in part on page 3 (November 15, 2016), and in full on the SGST website, where it can still be read.
It is understood that several private individuals also had copies of the email before the Sentinel-Times went to press. And there’s been no attempt to find out if any of the other councillors gave hard copies of the email to anyone else.
So what does the FOI prove? Not much.
But the obvious question to ask is why is Cr Hill so concerned that the email was released to the media in the first place?
It’s equally obvious that he would rather not had the ‘Open Letter’ made so “open and transparent” in the local paper.
In it he accused the new councillors of not being as good as their word, that they’d already broken the “spirit of the agreement”, that their decision to vote for Cr Argento as mayor and a woman as deputy was “factional decision making” at its worst, leading “to dysfunctional councils”.
“Anyone who behaves in any way duplicitous,” he warned, “will be found out by others”.
He went on to assert that either Cr Andrew McEwen or himself would make a better choice for the $70,000 a year mayoral gig, than someone without prior council experience, presumably including Cr Argento and the other six new councillors.
All Cr Hill has succeeded in doing by bringing up this whole grubby episode again, is to remind his fellow councillors what he really thinks about them.
It’s time to move on Cr Hill and as the self-appointed champion of open and transparent local government, you might like to start with yourself.
Oh yes and by the way, the reason why the number of decisions made at closed meetings is up 35 per cent in South Gippsland is that most of the decisions made lately related to contracts and tenders, details of which will be released shortly.
Mind you, at 15 per cent, South Gippsland is on the high side for secrecy when compared to all councils (11.57%) and similar councils (12.71%).
At Bass Coast, only 6.16 per cent of decisions are listed as having been made in closed council.