AGENDA ITEM: GMR22/053 Draft Code of Meeting Practice – For Exhibition.
I am presenting today as the Co-convenor of A Better Eurobodalla, a community forum working to achieve open, accountable and responsive government in Eurobodalla
Today I want to address some decision points identified for Councillors in the agenda paper Draft Code of Meeting Practice – For Exhibition and request some clarity around what is published for community comment.
The recommendations in the General Manager’s paper include:
That Council determine:
Whether or not Public Forum sessions and Public Access sessions are live-streamed and
Whether or not a written copy of an approved speaker’s address for Public Forum and Public Access sessions is required to be provided by 12.00 noon to Council on the business day prior to the Council meeting.
On the question of whether Public Forum and Public Access sessions are live streamed:
- on 15 November 2021, during the ESC election campaign, all the mayoral candidates attended a candidates’ forum hosted by the Tuross Head Progress Association. At that forum all mayoral candidates agreed to support live streaming of both Public Forum and Public Access sessions. That group included Mayor Hatcher, Deputy Mayor Worthington, returning councillor Pollock, new councillors Grace and Harrison and mayoral candidate Karyn Starmer. The answers were taken to represent the position of the other councillor candidates on their group tickets including councillors Diskon, Schutz, Dannock and Mayne
In this agenda paper, Council staff have provided briefing under a discussion of a survey that (again from the agenda paper) ‘was developed to ascertain from the community their views about participation in Council meetings and in particular, when meetings should be held, and if Public Forum and Public Access should be live-streamed’. During the survey period, 312 surveys were completed and 59 written responses were received.
It is difficult to have confidence in a survey with questionable methodology – we can see no control over the number of times an individual can respond, and low survey response numbers. Remarkably the staff advice states that ‘The results indicate that not livestreaming public forum is slightly favoured during the engagement process’ whereas
- on the forum question – 51.3% of respondents voted either Yes: (42.4%) or Optional for presenter: (8.9%) with a no vote of 48.7% and
- on the public access question – 51.2% of respondents voted either Yes: (40.3%) or Optional for presenter: (10.9%) with a no vote of No: 48.9%
Indicating that a majority of respondents did favour the possibility of live streaming.
Again, under consideration of live streaming of public forum sessions, staff advice is that ‘It should be noted that webcasting of Public Forum not only increases Council’s potential liability, but could also cause significant (sic) or offence should a speaker reveal an issue of privacy or state derogatory comments about a person which is based on incorrect, malicious or misunderstood information. In addition, it is acknowledged that many people find public presentations to be stressful enough, without the additional pressure of being webcast, and this presentation being able to be accessed for seven years. Further, webcasting of public forum is not included in OLG best practice guidelines or recommended as an option’
Similar advice is provided by staff for potential live streaming of public access sessions.
In relation to the question of potential liability or causing offence, other councils that are clearly in exactly the same position manage such risks in a simple but professional manner. For example, Shoalhaven Council has directives which set out:
‘Is there anything I can’t say at the meeting?
- Comments must be relevant to the issue at hand
- You must refrain from making personal comments or criticisms or revealing any private, sensitive or privileged information
- You may not make insulting or defamatory statements
- You may not make personal allegations against Councillors and/or staff or be disrespectful. If/when such statements are made the deputation will cease and the individual will be asked to leave the meeting
- Speakers do not have absolute privilege
- A speaker who makes any offensive or defamatory remarks about another person may be personally liable for their actions’
- Your attendance at the meeting is taken as consent to the possibility that your image and/or voice may be recorded and broadcast to the public.
A similar approach by Eurobodalla Shire Council should alleviate the staff, and any councillor, concerns.
The staff statement that ‘it is acknowledged that many people find public presentations to be stressful enough, without the additional pressure of being webcast’ is not supported by any survey results or analysis that might indicate that this is true.
A review of surrounding councils shows that the 3 councils adjoining our shire all provide webcasting for public presentations under various titles. So, Shoalhaven, Bega and Snowy Monaro councils are not overly concerned by the Office of Local Government best practice guidelines. In 2019, even before the pandemic, a majority of NSW councils provided webcasting of public presentations, similarly not overly deterred by the OLG best practice guidelines.
Briefly, in response to some of the other issues under consideration:
- ABE does not support speakers being obliged to provide a copy of their address for Public Forum and Public Access sessions to Council by 12.00 noon the business day prior to the meeting. Instead, ABE believes that this should be optional.
- Remarkably in item 3.27 there is a recommendation relating to public forum that states: ‘If a written copy of the presentation is not provided then this will be ruled a breach of this Code and (at the ruling of the Chairperson) the presenter may not be allowed to address Council at future meetings’.
This is an inappropriate and punitive response to what might be an innocent error or oversight.
- There is what appears as a new provision at ‘3.28 When a person is speaking on behalf of a person or group, Councillors are not permitted to ask questions, unless that speaker is a formal representative of the group’.
Having been subject to confusing and inconsistent interpretations of this, or a similar ruling by Council, ABEs view is that it is an unnecessary provision. Rather, Councillors should be able to ask any relevant questions and simply ask the presenter to identify whether she or he is responding as an individual or on behalf of their group.
Finally, in the interests of clarity and transparency, the draft that goes for public exhibition should be accompanied by a statement that comment is invited on all provisions apart from those identified as mandatory under the OLG Model Meeting Code. The design of the current presentation is confusing as it speaks of ‘Council’s previously adopted provisions’ without identifying that those provisions were agreed to by the previous Councillors, not those elected in 2021.
A Better Eurobodalla