New look Council, but the old culture survives

*NB: This post has been edited at the request of the TRRA Management Committee and differs from the original article.

“The new Mayor and Councillors have made a disappointing start, at their first meeting held on 26 Sept 2017.”

The First Meeting:

The new Mayor and Councillors have made a disappointing start, at their first meeting held on 26 Sept 2017. They failed to take the opportunity to change the culture embraced by the previous Council, which all of them agreed to do at our TRRA Candidates Forum. (*What they said at the Forum*) The issues raised by TRRA were all about transparency, consultation and accountability and the decision to keep the existing meeting cycle structure was not in the best interests of the new Councillors to make properly considered decisions in future, for the public to have any notice of what is before Council or have any input into the process.

The council staff failed to follow their own Code of Meeting Practice by putting the Agenda and Council papers up on it’s website at about 9:30 am on the Monday, for the meeting on Tuesday. (Three days minimum notice for any meeting). This was when TRRA discovered that the staff had recommended that the meeting cycle remain as it was (Option 1). The only other options for consideration were to retain the current cycle with no committee at all (Option 2), or two committee meetings and two Ordinary Council meetings in the month with the meetings a week apart (Option 3.)This option would double the cost and frequency of meetings and was never a serious consideration. The pre 2012 option which TRRA recommended and debated at our Forum was not even presented as an option. This prompted a flurry of emails amongst the TRRA committee, some councillors and a formal letter to the councillors. 

The Decision:

When we arrived for the meeting we were informed (unofficially) that  Councillor Nell would move the motion to return to the pre 2012 cycle, against the staff recommendation, Councillor Abbott would second it, Councillor Arnott would support it and the rest would oppose or not support it. That is exactly what happened.

Councillor Le-Mottee vigorously supported the status quo, and attacked Option 3 on cost and frequency, seemingly oblivious to the actual motion that was being debated, talking about having 42 meetings in a year. Jordan launched a blistering attack on the proposition based on the ridiculous idea that the Committee meeting would have to be held in the lunch room because at some time in the past when no one from the public turned up they had had a few in there for convenience. He stated that transparency would not exist because we would not all be able to fit in there. These were ridiculous arguments that had nothing to do with what was being proposed.

Councillor Nell did not use his right of reply to shoot down these spurious arguments, the staff did not intervene and the Mayor said that he did not want to be seen to be going against the staff recommendation at his first meeting and would leave things as they were at this time. To top things off Clr. Nell voted for the status quo in the motion that followed.

We are also surprised that no one contested the Deputy Mayor’s position, the decision to make it a 12 month tenure might mean they intend to share it around.

PS Council Election History:

Five years ago we saw the full consequences of the referendum conducted with the previous Council elections in 2008, to reduce the representation from each ward from four Councillors to three, and have a Mayor elected by the people instead of fellow Councillors.

So at the next elections in 2012 we had the election of the first presidential style, popularly elected Mayor, meaning the Candidate with the most resources to expend in a campaign across the whole LGA would likely win. Mayor Mackenzie admitted in his declaration to the Electoral Commission that he had supported eight of the other candidates. This made sure that a good solid voting bloc would support his agenda. (In his declaration to the Electoral Commission he outspent rival Clr. Dingle by 10:1)

This did not just happen, it was a long term, well planned strategy, as revealed by then Clr. Steve Tucker in the Newcastle Herald Bruce Almighty series of articles in 2014.

We await with great interest the release of the declarations to the Electoral Commission to see who spent what in this campaign, but don’t hold your breath, that won’t be released under our crazy election laws until November 2018.

Changed Meeting Cycle

At the first Council meeting on Sept 25 2012, those Councillors radically changed the existing meeting cycles in a way that allowed them and senior administrative staff, to railroad controversial decisions through with minimum public scrutiny and participation.

The original system is still embraced by most other Councils around our LGA, (Newcastle City, Port Macquarie, Central Coast, North Sydney, Lane Cove, Hornsby, Mid-Western Regional, Northern Beaches, Mosman, Lismore, Queanbeyan-Palerang to name a few,) to allow proper notice to the public and informed decision making by councillors.

A Council meeting was held on the first Tuesday of the month which was classified as a ‘Committee of the whole’. This meant the Agenda and Council papers were released to the Councillors on a Friday evening at 5:00 PM and on the following Tuesday the agenda was discussed in an informal manner where Councillors could ask staff questions, speak more than once, etc. A vote was still taken on each issue, but it was only a recommendation to go to an ‘Ordinary Council Meeting’

The ‘Ordinary Council Meeting’ would be held on the last Tuesday of the month and would deal with the same agenda and recommendations, but could amend or debate those recommendations again before making a final decision on them in a formal manner.

This allowed sufficient time for Councillors to consider complex decisions properly, get advice from staff and do their homework before they had to vote. This also allowed the public and organisations like ours to consult with their Councillors and their members on the more contentious issues in the fortnight between meetings. It even allowed staff time to give Councillors advice on our submissions, no time is available for that now.

 The Current Meeting Cycle

The current system of having two Ordinary Council meetings a month and going into ‘Committee’ immediately before the formal vote allows voting blocs or those ‘in the know’ to railroad things through the system before proper consideration is given to issues or any opportunity for consultation with the public is given, and puts pressure on the other councillors to make ad hoc decisions that they don’t fully understand.

The public gets the Council information papers, which must be downloaded from the Council website at 5:00 pm on Friday evening. (Attempts have been made to do this earlier, but delivery has been inconsistent). This gives them the weekend and one working day to analyse the hundreds of pages of complex data. If they want to apply for Public Access to address the Council meeting this must be submitted before 12.00 midday on Monday. This is totally at the discretion of the Mayor, and can be refused without explanation. (Another policy exclusive to PS Council)

This makes for ill-considered decisions by Councillors (particularly inexperienced ones,) and the only way to put the process on hold to get more information is to move to defer the decision. The councillor then has to have the ‘numbers’ to do that, and can be accused of unnecessarily delaying the process. The other, even worse option, which frequently occurred in the last Council was to move a rescission motion, after the meeting, which inevitably leads to an expensive Extraordinary Council meeting to ram it through again the following week.

A classic case in point was the last Council meeting before the election where there were 946 pages of Council papers which included two contentious Flood mound developments that were recommended for refusal by Council Staff. Council did not go into ‘Committee of the whole’ mode at all, but dealt with the massive agenda without any prior discussion. One Flood mound was passed and one refused. A rescission motion was then moved after the meeting by the Mayor, forcing another Extraordinary General meeting the following week. A Councillor that refused the motion at the first meeting reversed their vote and it was passed at the following special meeting.

No explanation was ever given as to whether the Councillor was confused the first time or why the change of mind. These Extraordinary meetings cost about $5,000.00 each to run by councils own admission..

The Webcam

The other contentious decision taken by the previous Council was to remove the live webcasting of proceedings. Aside from the convenience factor of not having to travel to Raymond Terrace to attend meetings, TRRA feels that reinstating the webcam would lift the standard of debate and the conduct of meetings, if all were aware that proceedings were being broadcast live and a record was being kept of who was supporting what.

We understand that this promise by the new candidates is also meeting strong resistance from Council staff and the councillors from the previous Council.

It remains to be seen whether the new team will emerge with any credibility from that debate either, or even if it will ever be held. We were very optimistic that the ‘changing of the guard’ might result in a changing of the culture, transparency, accountability, consultation was what the new Councillors promised us,  It’s over to you to deliver now Councillors………..!

**NB**: An excellent letter containing more technical arguments on these topics has been sent to Council and staff from one of our TRRA committee members HERE. It is well worth a read.

Dick Appleby, TRRA Vice President and Media officer 

One thought on “New look Council, but the old culture survives”

  1. The technical arguments letter link at the end of this article is well worth a read. It was sent as an individual to Council for a response. Looking forward to Steve sharing the response he receives!

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