Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More translucent than transparent

HEARING councillors support moves to restrict public attendance and participation at our monthly workshops was more than disappointing, especially from those who had previously espoused openness and transparency.

At last month's council meeting the agenda included the report of a working party formed to investigate the pros and cons of establishing a formal committee system at the council. This related to things such as planning, finance and audit committees and not the council's range of existing Special Committees.

It's certainly an understatement to say this report went in a different direction than was expected. It was formed to investigate the introduction of a committee system and recommended against it. It recommended consideration of an audit committee; closing workshops to the public after 30 minutes; and reviewing councillor membership of committees every 12 months.

Rather than simply vote against the recommendation, I proposed: 
  1. That the report be received and noted.
  2. That the council establish an audit committee in accordance with the recommendations of the Auditor-General in his report of November 2011.
Unfortunately this did not win the support of any councillors other than deputy mayor Barry Lathey.

Councillor Wayne Shoobridge then proposed, and Cr Chris Lester seconded the motion that:
  1. That Council continues the current practice of having no formal committees.
  2. That consideration is given to the establishment of an Audit Committee that would meet on a quarterly basis.
  3. That the current structure for Workshops be amended by having a forum for the first half hour which will be open to the public and a closed section for an hour and a half for councilor discussions.
  4. That Council on an annual basis review the councillor membership of all committees, to allow for the rotation of councillor representation on these committees.
  5. That Council advertise the open section of the workshops
After listening to other councillors state their case, this is what I had to say:

Mr Mayor, I had tried to adopt a moderate response to this matter, which was clearly unsuccessful. Now let me be equally clear: the report before us is the report of a committee which has exceeded its authority.

This working party was established with one purpose - to investigate the possibility of setting up a committee system. Having decided against a committee system, the working party should have stopped there. Instead, it took it upon itself to investigate workshops and committee representation. That is where the committee exceeded its authority and this is where it should stop.

When this committee's progress was discussed at a recent workshop, my recollection was that the councillors present expressed their clear desire for a planning committee to be established. Instead, the committee has reached the conclusion that a committee system in some way lacked transparency.

On the subject of workshops, it is clear that some councillors have been opposed to the participation of the public for some time. To address this, the committee proposes a new form of meeting, the closed workshop. Mr Mayor, there is no such thing as a "closed workshop". I challenge anyone to find "closed workshops" in the Local Government Act or the Local Government Meeting Procedure Regulations.

Mr Mayor this is the second attempt to restrict public participation at workshops. The first was the cruel hoax of ceasing advertising but claiming the meetings were still open. The working party's report gives the lie to that ridiculous situation.

It will be a backward step to ask the public to leave council workshops after the first 30 minutes as is proposed. No matter how it is dressed up, it will leave the public quite rightly asking: "what do they have to hide? What don't they want us to know?"

Mr Mayor the Local Government Act provides ample opportunities, generous opportunities, for closed meetings when they are required. Everyone here knows my opinion on the frequency of closed meetings - and we have another one tonight.

In coming up with its unexpected recommendation Mr Mayor, the working party has also failed to consult public on its proposal. The public is to be evicted from each workshop after a mere 30 minutes, and they have not even been asked their opinion.
Mr Mayor, before I resume my seat I will briefly address the panel’s final recommendation, for a yearly review of committee memberships. This too is excessive. Committee membership is already reviewed every second year, and should remain so. A yearly review would be unnecessarily disruptive to the committees we represent.

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