IT’S A FUNDAMENTAL principle of a democracy that people have a right to speak – on their own behalf and on behalf of others – to decision-makers. That right is meaningless without a corresponding right to be heard and a right to the information being used to make decisions on their behalf.
Can there be any justification for restricting the existing limited opportunity for people to participate at council meetings or access information that is in the public interest?
That question is on the mind of residents who take an active interest in local civic affairs after Queanbeyan-Palerang Mayor Tim Overall signalled a preference to restrict speaking opportunities and questions to the Public Forum.
The prospect of these changes arose at the council’s February 28 meeting when councillors considered a report from staff on a draft new Model Code of Meeting Practice for local government, released by the NSW Office of Local Government.
The majority of councillors endorsed a draft submission on the model code, prepared by QPRC staff, which stated that the public needed to understand there should be constraints on participation at council meetings; they are not part of the “engagement process”.
Since the forced council merger in September 2017, many aggrieved groups and individuals have stumped up to council meetings to express their views on a range of contentious matters, including those initiated under Administration, when there was but one person – the Administrator – to address and no councillors to whom to make representations.
If residents have come to view council meetings as a last ditch attempt to be heard it says much about the quality of the engagement process and the experience of numerous people in recent years of being subjected to perfunctory consultation.
As Greens Councillor Peter Marshall also noted during debate at the February council meeting, matters are sometimes brought to the meeting as late items (eg Mayoral minutes, items not subject to pubic consultation) or substantial amendments introduced, which the public has had no opportunity to know about or consider before the meeting. In such circumstances, it’s reasonable that people might want to address the issue at the council meeting.
But they will have fewer opportunities in future.
In addition to commenting on the draft model code, the staff report proposed changes to QPRC-specific meeting practices, including shorter speaking slots for speakers and limits on the number of Public Forum questions. See the table (below) for a summary of the key proposed changes.
The Public Forum was created after the former Queanbeyan City Council under Tim Overall abolished a segment of the council meeting in which people could ask a question about any matter under the council’s administration. Palerang Council provided no similar opportunity.
Questions for the Public Forum must be submitted in writing a week beforehand. This is before the business paper for a meeting is published, so it’s not possible to ask questions about matters the council is to consider.
Questions and responses are published on the council website, although those prior to the merger were removed when the council’s new website went live and must now be requested (if you happen to know what to ask for).
Under the staff proposal, a person could submit only five questions for each Public Forum. Cr Overall backed this cap, citing the cost and time for staff to answer questions.
The number of Public Forums would be halved from two in most months to one.
Cr Overall also confirmed during debate that the time allotted for speakers addressing the council meeting would be cut off after 30 minutes, regardless of how many people had registered to speak. He and Cr Biscotti suggested people get together and identify one person to speak on behalf of many; not a helpful suggestion given the diversity of the community now covered by the LGA.
Will these changes discourage people from attending council meetings to speak? Why make the long trek from, say Burra to Bungendore, or Braidwood to Queanbeyan only to be told time has run out to hear from you?
Staff also proposed that councillors be limited to presenting two notices of motions per meeting but advanced no reason. Council rejected this proposal.
Council staff will now draft a policy for the council’s public forum. When the model code of meeting practice is finalised, council will develop its own code, based on the model provisions.
The foreshadowed changes are a double blow after the forced merger, where representation was reduced from 17 councillors in total to 11; fewer voices to speak on behalf of different points of view in the community, and fewer councillors to listen to community views.
If a lot of people wish to participate at council meetings and people are seeking information from the council through questions in writing, might not this indicate the need for new approaches to involving the community in council business and making information, especially related to contentious issues, more transparent?
Rather than try to restrict public participation, council should be supporting meaningful involvement because democratic government does not begin and end with the act of voting on election day.
Draft Model Code of Meeting Practice.
Staff report, including draft submission and comments from Cr Peter Marshall and Cr Pete Harrison: See item 12.13 of the business paper.
Council debate 28 February 2018 (time code 2:17:10).
IMAGE: Vladek, Dreamstime.