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  • Writer's pictureSerena O'Meley

Questioning Darebin Council without being taken for a ride

[First published on Facebook 22 June 2016]

The Darebin community has a reasonable expectation that elected councillors will be scrupulous in representing our issues, both responsibly and in good faith. If even basic issues around governance get manipulated, in the fashion that I will describe below, it gives rise to concerns about what is happening in relation to other matters that come before council. Earlier this year Darebin Council stopped its long-standing practice of allowing people in the public gallery to ask their own questions about local issues. Instead, their concerns would be read out, sometimes rather selectively, by the Mayor. The response from the public has been anger, disgust and frustration. There was a lack of appreciation by council of how disenfranchised people would feel due to this change. On 10 April 2016, I wrote to the Mayor and councillors asking them to reinstate the normal question time, arguing in part: “One important reason why people should be allowed to ask their own questions is so they are able to give context to their statements. Verbal delivery also conveys much more intention and emotion than words that are read by someone who is unfamiliar with what is written. ... Whatever the reason was for the change, I urge you to reconsider. Hearing the voice - literally - of the people who you represent is a vital part of council accountability. Responding immediately shows respect for community opinion and engagement with people’s concerns.” A robust email discussion ensued with councillors divided on the reasons why the question time was changed and whether it could be reinstated by a motion of council or would need to wait for a direction from the Minister for Local Government, Hon. Natalie Hutchins, MP. Those opposing the reinstatement of the normal public question time made it clear to me in conversation and by email that they believed that the public gallery was being used to bully and mount politically motivated attacks on councillors and officers. Those in favour of reinstating the past question time process pointed out that there had been no public consultation on the change and argued that public question time could be reinstated by a motion of council. On 18 April 2016, I submitted background context and questions about public question time to council. The background material was not read out. I received the following verbal response to my questions from the Mayor: [Transcript] “Councillors and Executive Management team are in agreement to change to the way the public question time was held. Those changes are reflected in the final report submitted by the Municipal Inspectors presented to the Minister for Local Government. A copy of that final report submitted to the Minister for Local Government will be sent to you for information. ... “We are currently, as I mentioned before, not in a review, but what I would classify as a review process, to abide by the reforms, which were suggested by the monitors to the Minister, and subsequently we are in a process of having a look and assessing how this is being done. In a few weeks we should get a response from the Minister to say yes that we are happy for you to reinstate question time from the gallery” (See online archive at 6mins 30s).” This response was confirmed in writing on 22 April 2016, including the statement, “In the coming weeks Council will commence a review of the recent changes to public question time to see how it's working. As part of the review officers will again look at how other Councils deal with their public question time and how it may differ to Darebin.” I would interpret the “coming weeks” to mean sometime in May 2016. As all councillors well knew, before submitting my questions I had carefully read the Inspectors of Municipal Administration, Darebin City Council, Final Report to the Minister for Local Government [received 20 November 2015] and did not need to have it sent to me. It includes a range of useful improvements relating to the written submission of public questions, but it says nothing about preventing the public from asking their own questions from the gallery (see page 14). Putting it politely, there has been significant obfuscation about why there was a change to the practice of people asking their own questions and an attempt to shift the blame onto the Municipal Inspectors and Minister Hutchins for the change. On 22 April 2016, as suggested by the Mayor, I wrote to the Minister myself, outlining the issue in detail and closing with the following statement, “I trust that when council writes to the department that you will be able to set the record straight regarding the changes to public question time.” I followed up on this and other governance concerns in a meeting with a Ministerial advisor on 26 May 2016. I do not know if any correspondence was subsequently entered into between Council and the State Government. On 6 June 2016, I asked a further question of Darebin Council seeking a progress report on the reinstatement of the normal format for public question time. The review had not been started, as promised, and I received the following response: “Council has indicated to the Minister for Local Government that a review of public question time will commence in July. This will allow sufficient time for the process implemented in March 2016 to settle and be monitored. The public will be advised at the completion of the review of any further changes that will be implemented.” No terms of reference, consultation requirements, or timelines for completing the review were provided. In fact, there is no evidence that I can find to suggest that there was any genuine intention to undertake a formal review. Unexpectedly, on 20 June 2016, Darebin Council unanimously carried a resolution reinstating the normal format of public question time, on its own motion, apparently without reference to anything required by the Minister or her department. The kicker is that the return to normal process will not take place until 18 July 2016 - conveniently after the Federal Election - to allow time to inform the Minister. Various points of view were stated at the meeting about the original reasons for the change and there was an air of mutual-congratulation in the council chambers. Watching from the audience the performance seemed scripted; perhaps for the unseen eyes watching the online broadcast of the meeting (see online archive at 54mins 42s). Did council receive a call from the Minister’s office asking for public question time to be returned to its normal format?

On not being taken for a ride

So what is the explanation for the decision to stop people from asking their own questions at council meetings, and the misinformation and stalling which followed requests to return to the previous status quo? The 20 June 2016 resolution proves the point which I made back in April that council could easily return question time to its normal format without reference to the Minister. In my opinion a dominant faction of the council was worried about political statements being made from the gallery, in front of the local media, in the lead up to the Federal Election. I have never attended a council meeting where poor public behaviour was an issue but it should go without saying that in return for good governance the elected councillors and officers should be treated by the community with due respect for their office. It is also a role of the Mayor to ensure that there is good order throughout the meetings.

What I find immensely annoying about this episode is that some people in Darebin Council apparently thought that they could take the public for a ride and that no one would work out the truth. Photo credit: Terry Mason

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