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Local council meetings, petitions and you — coming up

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More hoops to having a say, thanks Coalition government 

OPPORTUNITIES TO PARTICIPATE in local council meetings will be curtailed under a proposed new meeting code of practice the NSW government is imposing effective from 14 June 2019. The changes arise from amendments to the Local Government Act in August 2016.

QPRC has released the new code for public feedback along with proposed changes to the way council receives petitions.

Hurry submissions close soon: see dates at end

Under the proposed new meeting code:

  • The General Manager may convene a ‘pre-meeting briefing session’ for councillors where the public is excluded; no debate or decisions are to be made at such briefing sessions.
  • While councillors will need to declare any conflict of interest in relation to any item of business in such sessions, no written record of conflicts of interest will be kept. This raises the question: If a conflict of interest is important enough to declare, why isn’t it important enough to record?

Lifting councils’ comfort zone

Members of the public will not be permitted to address council meetings about business listed on the meeting agenda. Instead, they can make submissions of three minutes on one or more items on the business paper at a public forum to be held before the council meeting.

  • People will need to register for the public forum.
  • Presenters are not allowed to allege that a councillor or the mayor has breached the Code of Conduct.
  • The general manager can refuse to allow a person to make future presentations for an unspecified period of time if the general manager ‘considers’ the person has engaged in unruly conduct contrary to the meeting code. There does not appear to be any review or appeal mechanism for the application of this provision.
  • Councillors will not be able to ask questions of presenters.
  • Councillors must declare conflicts of interest at a public forum but no written record of conflicts of interest will be kept.
  • Members of the public will continue to be allowed to lodge questions on notice and these will be answered in writing at the following public forum. The draft code does not refer to the council decision last year to limit questions on notice to six per person per forum.
  • People may speak against dealing with an item in closed session but only a maximum of two people will be permitted to speak and for a maximum of three minutes each.
  • Anyone who fails to leave the council chambers when the meeting is closed to the public may be expelled, including by a police officer
  • Mobile phones must be turned to silent during council meetings and no one is permitted to record or livestream proceedings of a council meeting. Failing to comply could result in a person being expelled from a meeting.
  • Motions from councillors that involve spending, not already budgeted for in the council’s delivery program and operational plan, must identify the source of funding to give effect to the motion. If they don’t, the General Manager may recommend the matter be deferred pending a report on financial implications. This provision would appear to reduce the council’s flexibility to deal with new or changed circumstances and needs.
  • Motions to rescind a development approval or the awarding of a contract must be submitted by the Friday after the council meeting at which the resolution was adopted.
  • Council meetings must finish by 9:30 pm, although the chair may extend this by 30 minutes, and allow for a 30 minute meal break from 7:30 pm.

Draft petition policy

The draft petition policy seems out of touch with the modern era in which most petitions are organised online and often delivered by email. Campaigns also run over many months and even years.

The draft petition policy also suggests that the council isn’t interested in hearing from people who might be seeking council intervention on an issue affecting the community which is not a direct council matter. For example, development proposals valued at more than $10 million are no longer determined by local councils. Instead, they are dealt with by a joint regional planning panel which usually sits during business hours.

Under the proposed petition policy, the council would refuse to accept a petition from residents seeking council support. For example, in the case of the proposed expansion of a waste management facility adjacent to homes in west Queanbeyan; or a major state or national road project that might result in the destruction of forest and woodland or threaten the water quality of a river.

The proposed petitions policy states:

  • Petitions must deal only with matters for which the council has legislative responsibility.
  • Council won’t accept petitions that are the same or very similar to petitions it has already considered in the previous 12 months. It’s not clear what this means for a ‘rolling petition’ like that used by the campaigners against the Ellerton Drive Extension over a period of more than 12 months.
  • A petition must contain the name, address and contact details of at least 20 people who either own property, a business, reside or work in the Queanbeyan-Palerang Local Government Area.
  • A petition must include the details of the organiser, signatures of the petitioners and the organiser must certify that all signatures are legitimate.
  • Petitions must be lodged in writing by post and will be tabled at the Public Forum preceding council meetings.
  • The council will verify all the signatures are ‘legitimate’.

Greens Cr Peter Marshall who flagged concerns about the proposed new code last year, told The District Bulletin this month: “The directive from the LNP State Government, greatly reduces public participation in council meetings. QPRC is trying to reinstate participation as best it can, but there will inevitably be a reduction in public involvement.”

The draft petition policy and code of meeting practice are on public exhibition until 15 March.
Comments on the petition policy close on 15 March and on the code of meeting practice on 30 March.

Comments can be made through the online platform
Your Voice at https://yourvoice.qprc.nsw.gov.au
or emailed to council@qprc.nsw.gov.au

 

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