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Byron Shire
August 20, 2022

Are Richmond Valley Council gagging community participation?

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Ever had a reason to present a point of view to your local councilors during public access? Proposed changes to the Richmond Valley Council meeting Code of Practice mean that you might no longer get that opportunity if the General Manager doesn’t approve of what you have to say. 

According to the proposed new ‘supplementary rules’ points two and three state:

2. Public access where “Matters for Determination” are the only matters the public can address except with the permission of the General Manager for ‘Matters for Information’ on a “case-by-case” basis.  All other matters are excluded.

  1. Vetting of proposed presentations from the public by the General Manager prior to the meeting with the presentations to be forwarded to the Council for review by 2pm on the Tuesday prior to the scheduled meeting at 6pm with permission to proceed “at the General Manager’s discretion”.’

The basis for the changes is to ‘streamline’ the public process but local, Dr Richard Gates from the Evans Head Residents for Sustainable Development Inc (EHRSD), told The Echo that, ‘the new rules are onerous and breach of Social Justice principles for community participation which are part of council’s obligations under Section 8 of the local government act 1993’

For anyone who has been part of preparing a presentation to their local council during public access, this appears to be a significant breach of the individual or group’s rights to express their opinion without interference from the council staff. 

Dr Gates said that he was amazed that when the item came up as a draft for consideration at May’s council meeting that the proposal was accepted without debate by councillors and went out for public consultation.

‘I wrote to council following the meeting asking for an explanation as to how these changes would “streamline the public access process”. I also asked for a clear statement of the principles the General Manager would be using in deciding what will be allowed or not allowed to be presented, and why matters other than those “for determination” are no longer available for public comment. I also asked “on what basis are these matters to be being excluded except at his discretion and what is the basis of his discretion?”

‘I was told by council that I was “welcome to make a submission highlighting any matters you believe require clarification or improvement” but was NOT provided with any answers to the questions. This is not satisfactory.’

An aerial photo showing further clearing at the Iron Gates site in April this year. The state government has announced it could not find enough evidence to show the clearing was illegal. (supplied)

Dr Gates highlighted the fact that these significant changes were being pushed through at a time when the community was recovering from server flooding but that ‘we ignore these rule changes at our peril’.

‘Matters which will no doubt come up for public discussion at Tuesday’s meeting of council such as the independent planning report on the controversial Iron Gates proposal or council’s financial losses through its investments in NSW Treasury Corp unit trusts will no longer be available for public comment except at the GM’s discretion. Matters which are embarrassing for council could easily be excluded without explanation,’ he said. 

‘There seems to be a real transfer of political power here to the general manager of council with the general manager’s hand reaching in to the decision-making process about who can and who can’t make a representation to council about matters of concern to the public without there being any accountability mechanisms in place including a clear statement of criteria for decision-making.

Bentley residents and supporters gathered at the Richmond Valley Council offices previously with several submissions including a 351-page group submission opposing the quarry. Photo Tree Faerie.

‘With the new rules a whole range of matters which routinely go to council are now ruled “out-of-bounds”. The public is no longer able to make representation about a mayoral minute, or a development application, or a financial report to council which concerns them, without the permission of the general manager who has no obligation to provide an explanation for his/her decision. And if you are granted permission you have to provide a copy of your representation to council to the general manager before the council meeting who can reject your representation without explanation and with no requirement to do so.  

Gagging participation

‘The problem is made worse by the fact that even if you do have a chance to make a representation council is under no obligation to minute your presentation accurately or fairly or verbatim. Council can selectively edit your presentation without explanation. This can easily be manipulated for political purposes particularly if council doesn’t want to entertain any criticism. You cannot make a representation to council about the minutes of the meeting in which your representation may be misreported because that is outside the rules. There is no comeback. In effect your participation in local government has the potential to be gagged.

Secret sessions?

‘Quite apart from the public access process for council meetings coming completely under the control of the general manager with no accountability rules there is the problem of council meeting before the public meeting for some kind of briefing. No justification has been provided for this “caucusing”. The public is to be shut out of what council is being told. There is no way that the public can check the veracity of the information that councillors are being given before the meeting which might sway what councillors might think about a particular matter.  Yes, they might not make a decision at the time but when the public council meeting is held what happens at that preliminary meeting could quite easily affect the decision-making process even to the point of no-one putting a particular item up for discussion at the meeting. 

‘As it presently stands councillors have the option of choosing which matters will be discussed and which will be ratified without discussion. How can we hold our elected representatives to account if we don’t know what they are being told behind closed doors.  Council already holds “information sessions” behind closed doors. Why do they need this extra secret session from the general manager just before the council meeting for which no minutes are to be kept?’

Dr Gates said that he can see lots of problems arising from the new rules with intrusion of control of the political agenda by the general manager who should stand aside from the political process.  

‘The democratic process is under challenge around the world and these proposed rules are part of that problem. Councillors must reject these changes as they are an affront to the democratic process. Small incremental changes add up and we need to be on guard or we will find we have lost control of the political agenda.’

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  1. As a previous councillor on Richmond Valley Council (2008-12) these changes to the Code of Meeting Practice are not in good faith to being open and seeking public participation. Local Government has become a joke in many LGAs by either focusing on items that are not core local government issues such as those matters for State and Federal government determination and/ or also shutting out the voice of residents on local issues that do effect their community.
    When on RVC I know first hand how others tried to stop councillors to have a say on matters. Councillors should state their views on matters without having to nominate the agenda items they wish to speak to by proposing amendments to what staff put forward. Likewise council should are prepared to listen to its community even if it is not in agreement with that proposed on a business paper. Thats the point of democracy to have the right to speak freely. The last RVC meeting I attended a few years ago was a disgrace lasting approximately one hour including the introductory items. One hour a month to deal with issues that relate to a community including procedural matters. No wonder many are disheartened by the operation of some councils.

  2. This could help to shorten Council meeting duration and lessen the constant grand-standing/demos by minority pressure-groups.
    Policed responsibly, this may not be such a bad thing, viewed as regards the needs of a majority of ratepayers.
    [I think Lismore city Council tried this type of access-session regime in the past, so might be useful to do some research over this].

  3. Tragic. Why do right-wing councils hate democracy so much? The much-vaunted freedom of speech ( the core right-wing right ) doesn’t seem to be getting the respect it needs???


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