PS Council Report Card Project 2012/13

The TRRA Council Report Card Project

Port Stephens Council In Session

TRRA Inc has noticed some disturbing trends ever since this Council declared itself ‘open for business’ after a controversial election last year.

TRRA Inc. has published a blow by blow account on this site of the forums we held in the lead up to the election, HERE that exposed the preference deals being done to produce the current 7-3 split result. We are seeing a similar situation emerging currently in the Federal Senate which operates on a similar ‘preference’ system.

At the new Council’s first meeting the Mayor’s faction immediately used its numbers to establish total control of Council business by reducing transparency, and shutting down public participation in the decision making process by changing the Code of Meeting Practice. This was done by reverting to the old system of having meetings ‘in Committee’ to debate matters then rubber stamping them straight through in formal Council immediately afterwards. This prevents proper scrutiny by the media and a public debate on the issues before decisions are made. It also avoids dissenting Councillors from further researching details or being lobbied by others, such as us. We recognise there are routine matters which can be speeded up by this process. However, it is the major ones where consultation should take place about which we are concerned.

Council papers are available on the website for downloading from 5:00pm Friday night, Council meets at 5:00pm on Tuesdays, this gives very little time for any proper scrutiny by the Councillors that are not in the loop, or the general public. This also means that the only local newspaper (The Examiner) either pre-empts what is going to happen (deadline Mondays) or reports it the following week, usually from the Press Release, and the Newcastle Herald is sometimes the only way local people can find out within that week what happened, albeit in very short articles, and with minimal background reporting. Many on the Tomaree Peninsula just do not have access to the Newcastle Herald.

This cosy little arrangement was totally disrupted by the previous Council when it staggered the Committee meetings and the Council meetings giving ample time between the release of papers, the Committee process and the final vote for proper scrutiny and consideration by all. Then they introduced the Webcam, which meant that the public debate was very public, actually accessible in real time or on demand by all, the only requirement being an internet connection.

The new Council, disregarding the transparency being adopted now by other Councils, recommendations from a Staff review, and the considerable expense involved in purchasing and installing the equipment simply elected to pull the plug! It presumably joined the other redundant and expensive sound recording equipment in the big cupboard at the end of the chamber, surplus to requirements.

Is democracy, transparency and accountability now in the same cupboard?

There is now no record kept of what was said, or who even voted for what, unless a division is required or that someone asks that their dissenting vote be recorded. The Council minutes are just a record of staff recommendations, approved or rejected. Very convenient for a dominant faction.

As if this was not enough, the Mayor has now seen fit to exercise his unilateral power under the meeting Code of Meeting practice to exclude members of the public from addressing Council meetings directly through the public access process. Even this ‘5 minutes of fame’ has now been refused on numerous occasions to TRRA Committee members. Limited reasons have been given for this denial of a basic democratic right. It is totally at the Mayor’s discretion.

When a former Councillor who had been refused access to respond to an accusation by a sitting Councillor tried to address a Council meeting, the Mayor and his group shut down the meeting, left the chamber and had her removed by security! Surely the way to handle a situation such as this would have been to just listen to her 5 minute personal explanation, record that it be noted and move on. Not in Port Stephens Council!

We have made lengthy submissions to the State Government about some of our concerns particularly about pecuniary interest matters etc. and have received feedback from the Department of Local Government, the Ombudsman, ICAC and the Planning Commission, they are virtually form letters. The basic message is “you elected them, if you are not happy with them throw them out and put someone else in next time”. If there is an issue with the Mayor, then talk to the General Manager. If the issue is with the General Manager, then talk to the Mayor!

TRRA Inc. do not see ourselves as an unelected opposition to the currently elected Council. We have been portrayed variously as ‘Council bashers’ and ‘old farts’ with nothing better to do, but with very little scrutiny by the media and a State Government that is not interested in taking any action, and in fact could potentially agree with a lot of what is happening here, we feel that the least we can do is monitor and document the actions of the Councillors and Staff, try to make the public aware of what is going on so that they can make an informed decision ‘next time.’ We DO care!

To this end we have been utilising our limited resources to record the basis on which decisions made are at Council meetings by attending as many as we can, and studying the minutes of the ones we cannot. We talk to the Councillors and read the Council papers and look at the recommendations of Council Staff and expert bodies such as the Rural Fire service.

We record these statistics on spread sheets and it is not very difficult over a period of time to analyse the trends that soon emerge. We take particular notice of the decisions that are made by Councillors against the recommendations of the Staff and the experts, and who is bringing these matters before Council.

We will be publishing these statistics and trends on this website regularly and those that are interested will be able to draw their own conclusions about whether their elected representatives are acting in the ratepayers interests or their own.

TRRA Inc.’s first interim report is: HERE

Reaction Examiner14 November 2013 HERE

Other Posts on this subject HERE

Newcastle Herald March 02 2014: Macka “Bloc” Drives Key Port Decisions

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