Lismore City Councillors have agreed to workshop democracy and deny unlimited spending power to the general manager after another late-night ordinary meeting this week.
Monday night’s June meeting agenda item outlining proposed changes to the council’s codes of practice for ordinary meetings attracted several criticisms from the public gallery.
Well known environmentalist Hugh Nicholson joked that he couldn’t resist the chance to agree with Independent Councillor Big Rob on something.
But it later became clear Cr Rob had more than one bone to pick with the proposed new codes.
Mr Nicholson, and most other members of the public speaking on the item, drew councillors’ attention to one of several proposed changes to rules around public access.
Lismore council staff try to limit public access
The irony of having several people speak during public access about threats to public access was surely not lost on anyone paying attention.
They objected to a new limit staff wanted imposed on the number of people allowed to speak on any one agenda item in public access.
Code number 4.8 proposed no more than four speakers permitted to speak ‘for’ or ‘against’ each item of business on the agenda for the council meeting.
Considering Lismore City Council meetings this year have become infamous for their midnight oil-burning odysseys, this week was no exception, any attempt at efficiency therein might be warranted.
But Mr Nicholson said he was a fairly regular meeting attendee and couldn’t recall more than one or two issues that had prompted more than four people speaking.
Labor Cr Darlene Cook proposed removing the four-person limit there and then.
Cr Rob accuses staff of trying to silence discussion
But by the time the item was addressed, Cr Rob appeared concerned council staff were trying to rush councillors through the list of more than eighty rules published in the agenda.
Staff said councillors had already attended a briefing about the state government’s requirement for the relatively newly elected council to submit a refreshed set of codes within the next six months.
Independent Cr Rob objected to the comment, saying councillors hadn’t had a chance to discuss the changes, which staff said were made after the briefing, in detail.
‘I will go through the codes point by point,’ Cr Rob said, declaring that the item could take two hours.
The fear in the chambers was palpable, even via streaming, with several other important items yet to be addressed that evening, including the next financial year’s budget.
Lismore council to take advantage of workshop option
Then the mayor wondered aloud if it was worth having ‘another briefing night’ on the matter and a sense of hope was restored.
Cr Rob said he was happy for the council to have a workshop.
Workshops on council meeting agenda items, policies, plans and strategies aren’t uncommon, depending on the local government in question.
The Tweed Shire Council has often used the option for more complex matters, especially in terms of public interest.
The Lismore City Council’s proposed new codes of practice for its meetings included several changes that at first glance seemed benign but that revealed controversy on closer analysis.
You can’t ask that (especially if there’s no time)
For a start, there was the ordinary order of agenda items: when to table committee reports; when to hear notices of motion; when to accept previous meeting minutes; when to hear the public; when to hear notices on question, et cetera.
Cr Rob was unhappy with the way the new proposed model featured questions with notice towards the end of ordinary agendas.
The order of items at meetings can be, and usually is, changed at almost any time in a meeting but only with a council vote.
Perhaps what was more telling was another proposed rule in the code requiring ordinary meetings, which don’t start until 6pm, to finish by 10.30pm unless councillors agree to carry on.
Cr Rob said the former move appeared to be targeted at him because he submitted many questions on notice.
Questions on notice can also lead to motions, a process the mayor later described as an unfair loophole since other councillors and staff may not be prepared for subsequent votes.
Outcries over proposed meeting rules
The order of items in Monday night’s meeting was changed and questions on notice, mostly from Cr Rob, were shifted towards the end.
He was suitably offended and even more indignant when staff suggested the new meeting codes might be voted on all-in-one.
‘I will not be told how I’m going to have to vote,’ Cr Rob said.
Independent Cr Elly Bird wanted to know if councillors could get the matter of the number of public speakers on agenda items sorted that evening and ‘anything else councillors want changed in particular’ in relation to the code.
The invitation for ‘anything else’ proved irresistible.
‘It’s just a suggestion,’ council staff say on proposal to discriminate against DA rescission motions
Cr Cook spoke up about proposed code number 17.10 on rescission motions.
‘A notice of motion to alter or rescind a resolution relating to a development application must be submitted to the general manager no later than 4pm on the day after the meeting at which the resolution was adopted,’ the proposed code read.
Cr Cook wanted to know if the same timeframe applied to all rescission motions.
Staff seemed to stumble in their explanation, which was that rescission motions can logically, technically and legally be lodged at any time up until an approved motion is enacted.
‘It’s just a suggestion,’ they offered on the DA-only rule, which would effectively give greater certainty to developers while curtailing opportunities for challenges.
Council GM could have power to quash new projects
Another proposed change concerned councillor ideas for new projects.
Staff said they wanted councillors to fulfil the strategic goals of the new council, which were to effectively ‘get back to basics’ in terms of budgets and expenditure.
Code number 3.13 called for notices of motion (NOM) for the expenditure of funds on works and/or services other than those already provided for in the council’s current adopted operational plan to identify sources of funding.
Where NOMs failed to identify a funding source, the proposed code said the general manager would be obliged to step in.
Under the new rules, the general manager would have to prepare a report on the availability of funds that would either be tabled in the same meeting as the NOM or until it was ready – but both events would have to happen at the same time.
Councillors pointed out this could delay their ability to exercise their right to put forward project ideas.
Staff said it made sense that councillors had to justify where funds for their ideas would come from but conceded it was possible they could come from cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Voting on acceptance of the new codes of conduct for council meetings was deferred until after a yet-to-be-confirmed workshop for councillors on the codes.
Unlimited project spending for GM voted down
Speaking of the budget, a guide for how the council would manage tenders and contracts in the post-floods rebuild and recovery was ultimately passed but without a proposal for the general manager to have unlimited spending power on projects.
‘In accordance with Section 377(1) of the Local Government Act, 1993 the General Manager delegated authority to determine submissions or tenders and award contracts for all works relating to the rebuild of Council infrastructure damaged by the 2022 flood event, with no upper limit,’ the suggested code read.
In case anyone was falling asleep by the late hour the tendering matter was raised, Greens Cr Adam Guise delivered another of his carefully four-minute-timed impassioned speeches.
Carefully timed because, as the mayor/chair regularly noted, Cr Guise had a knack for ending on elongated sentences that began almost directly before the final bell.
‘I was alarmed and surprised by the councillors’ support of this motion,’ Cr Guise said and indeed, he sounded disgusted.
‘Here we are, proposing to give away oversight to allow the GM, one person, unilaterally, to hand out $303 million dollars of taxpayer money as he sees fit,’ Cr Guise said.
Cr Guise said councillors needed to sit down and discuss how they could ‘manage the emergency with proper oversight’.
Getting rid of the tendering process didn’t solve the pressing issue of a lack of tradies and supplies, the Greens member said.
Cr Rob considers joining Greens
Cr Rob chimed in: ‘I think I might join the greens,’ he said.
But Cr Rob said he was more concerned about public perceptions of the council if it endorsed the power transfer.
It would look bad, he said, if eleven people gave up their decision-making power.
‘I can’t believe that one of the items includes no upper limit for how much the GM can decide to spend on a project,’ Cr Rob said, ‘this is a backward step’.
GM acknowledges lack of trust from councillors
Cr Bird agreed, before playing the proverbial devil’s advocate.
She reminded councillors they’d heard justification from staff for an increase in other spending limits to a million dollars, so why not hear justification for unlimited spending?
But by then the general manager had expressed distaste for the deal, saying the magnitude of the power proposed to be bestowed upon him was alarming.
He didn’t want the authority when there was ‘no trust anyway,’ John Walker said.
‘If it makes councillors feel better then I’m not seeking to take that power,’ Mr Walker said.
Councillors voted on an amended version of the tenders handling proposal that struck out the part referring to no upper limit in general manager spending powers.
Greens Cr questions GM’s integrity but Walker has final laugh
But the punchline came later and was possibly unnoticed by many as the clock ticked towards midnight.
The general manager watched the councillors vote against the new proposed powers and then said there already existed ‘delegation’ for him to ‘sign off on projects over $250,000’.
‘I’m happy for councillors to come to a meeting to discuss the details,’ Mr Walker said.
There was a noticeable moment of quiet as people digested the events before them.
Cr Guise spoke, and it was unclear if he spoke on behalf of party values, councillor values, or community values but it seemed every ear was listening.
‘How can you say you are surprised and alarmed,’ he said, referring to the failed proposed powers, ‘when you’re the one who signs off on the reports and council documents?’
In a mild-mannered voice, Mr Walker replied simply that he’d ‘changed his mind after hearing the debate’.