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Byron Shire
February 26, 2021

‘Mushroom’ syndrome continues without Gainger

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Fast Buck$, Coorabell.

Has anything changed since Ken Gainger walked out of Byron Shire Council a couple of months ago? Not much; certainly the ‘mushroom’ syndrome is still well in place – you know, the one where staff keep councillors in the dark and feed them bullshit. Some things never change.

Staff are currently proposing changes to public access, allegedly to reduce theme pressure on councillors. However the changes put up by Ralph James would at best achieve a time benefit of 10 to 12 minutes per meeting – bugger all – meaning that one has to look elsewhere for the true motive behind this initiative.

Here are some highlights of my submission against the proposed changes.

Coucillor Spooner has complained that Byron Council has the longest meetings of any council in NSW. It’s long been abundantly clear to me that the main reason for this is that Council meetings are held too infrequently to deal with the amount of Council business generated in this hothouse shire. Accordingly Council could easily reduce the per-meeting load by increasing the number of meetings, duh.

Mr James might have canvassed the above, and provided comparisons with other councils in terms of: a) The frequency of council meetings; b) The number of items on the agenda; c) The typical amount of blah blah blah by individual councillors (our lot tend to prattle); d) The amount of decision-making delegated to staff.

Without such comparative information Mr James’s report is at best a waste of ratepayers’ money. At worst it is an attempt to garner councillors’ resentments and direct them at public access, in particular the role Matthew O’Reilly and I have played in giving councillors crucial information.

What really terrified staff, however, is public questions. I’m quite sure that it was Ken Gainger who put Simon Richardson up to abolishing public questions some years ago. Currently we are entitled to one question per meeting, so I got pretty steamed up when staff provided their sometimes evasive and misleading responses, such that my question is essentially wasted.

Now it’s part of the meeting code that if staff fail to provide a response at the meeting, they are obliged to publish the response in the next agenda. That in turn means that I then get another chance to raise the issue by complaining about staff evasiveness. Ken Gainger hated this, and in the last four months of his tenure, in my opinion in contravention of the code, Council refused to publish staff responses in the agenda – not just mine but also those of several other people – which denied the second opportunity to raise the issue.

Mr James’s report seeks to formalise this evasion by changing things so that answers to questions appear only in the minutes, not in the next agenda. The minutes of Council meetings are documents that almost no one ever reads.

In other words, Mr James’s efforts do not reduce councillors’ loads but do preserve the staff hegemony over information and protect the staff from accountability. There will be less opportunity for people like Matthew and I to tell councillors what the staff should but are not telling them, and more opportunity for staff to provide bullshit instead of proper answers to questions.

Like I said, nothing has changed. You’d think though that staff might have realised that evasions simply point to vulnerabilities, to something they are hiding.


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  1. To begin the first step, Ken Gainger walked out of Byron Shire Council a couple of months ago and just what has walked in? Not much, as such, certainly in the dark corners of council the ‘mushroom’ syndrome is still well in place growing and spreading. In the office, staff officers keep councillors in the dark and feed them what seems to be bovine waste. Some things never change from the chaff munching at the cliff face to the end product at the other end. Most things in council are in the pipeline and that is just the infrastructure.

  2. Having attended a few council meetings and listened to many others, I certainly sympathise with our councillors having to endure the long and tedious hours. There seems to be a range of reasons and I could offer some suggestions –

    Public access – It’s a difficult balance between reasonable time constraints and constraints to democratic input. Some people do grandstand at public access, over-appreciating the sound of their own voices and need to be careful that in doing so they don’t jeopardise the opportunity.

    Preparation- when councillors go to the trouble of placing notices of motion, with supporting material. On the agenda, it must be disheartening how often and for how long amendments are ‘workshopped’ among the dissenters ad infinitum. If councillors wish to move amendments they could at least have their wording and thoughts in some sort of order prior to discussion of the item.

    Volume of items – it seems our councillors never tire of coming up with new projects and ideas that send our hard-pressed staff off on another round of research and report writing – reports that have to come before another meeting, and another because time constraints mean the research and planning is still in its infancy. Being an exciting and innovative community is terrific but doing a manageable number of things well is better than constantly presenting new thought bubbles. The Shire after all faces enough issues that arise spontaneously.

    ‘I move the motion be put’ – a wonderful phrase that, along with ‘point of order’ are invaluable aids to meeting participants who have to sit through, circular arguments and repetition, especially when the outcome is largely known due to voting blocs.

    That’s a start anyway

  3. Councillors want to save time and reduce meeting hours! They should listen to the audio of Council meetings as I have on many occasions. So many ums and ahs, long periods of silence, waffling and unnecessary personal comments. Get your thoughts together councillors. Be specific, concise and stop the waffle.

    Sometimes, Councillors don’t even listen to participants in public access. Too busy looking at their computer screens.

  4. Thank you Liz and John,
    When West Byron Estate fills with what is reported to be about 9000 people and the number of cars increase on Ewingsdale Road, bumper to bumper, those people and cars and tourists will mainly be from Sydney, as they are worth a lot more than a cigarette bumper down there so the writing style of the Echo will be more of a Metropolian style of writing, cigar style, than the present rural regional style. That coming up-market walk is a few flowing pen steps down the road as yet but the Byron Echo can do it in a strole. Fast Buck$ may need a column.


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