A Draft Code of Meeting Practice (COMP) and Briefing Policy prepared by the Governance & Customer Service Manager was the subject of discussion at Lismore Council this week.
In accordance with provisions of the Local Government Act 1993 (the Act) and the Local Government Regulation 2021 council must adopt a Code of Meeting Practice within 12 months of an ordinary election of councillors.
The Office of Local Government released a new Model Code of Meeting Practice in 2021. The Model has both mandatory provisions and non-mandatory provisions. A Lismore City Council Code of Meeting Practice has been drafted consistent with the Model.
From the start, Council voted to separate voting on the Draft Code of Meeting Practice and the Briefings Policy and the debate began on the COMP.
A concerning move
Cr Adam Guise spoke against the COMP in its current form. One of the items he noted was capping the number of speakers for items during Public Access to four speakers for and for speakers against. ‘There is a concerning move to lessen the community’s democratic involvement and oversight of council meetings and goings on. Having open transparent meetings for which the community has access to is an important cornerstone of our duties as Councillors being accountable to our community, and is a fundamental tenant of the freedom of political expression and democracy.
‘One of the aspects of the proposed Code of Meeting Practice that I do not want to see proceed is the attempt to reduce the number of speakers for and against items on the agenda down to just four people. I’ve made this known to my fellow Councillors.
People’s right to freedom of political expression
‘This has been long discussed in workshops and briefings. We do currently have an unlimited threshold for numbers and speakers. And I’ll say this, it’s because it reflects the diversity of our community, we cannot just reduce the views in our community – it gives an unrealistic and a misleading perception of a narrow set of views in our community. It also fundamentally goes against people’s right to freedom of political expression.
‘Sure, they may be saying similar things or the same things as what someone’s said before them, but their opportunity to come to this chamber and speak for and against items is fundamental.
‘To a healthy democracy and us being informed in our decisions and to silence them in that is not right.
Secret Council meetings
Cr Guise said that further to that point, there’s a move to have introduced pre-meeting briefings. ‘This is what Councils in the past might have known as GM forums. This is the opportunity where, prior to a meeting, we can have secrets behind-closed-door meetings just before a meeting, too as give us information that the public is not privy to.
‘I do not want to see this use because they’ve been used in the past, to give us surprise information or to influence us in a way where Councillors aren’t making proper decisions in the Public Chamber, that for some reason, there’s some new information just before a meeting, and therefore that influences the way Councillors will vote.
‘So, I will not be supporting them. I want briefings in the Public Chamber in the public eye, and only when those requirements in the Act, about when briefings or meetings can be closed to the public, is when we should be doing that – and they need to be justified.
Notices of Motion and Questions with Notice
Cr Guise said the third aspect he would like to see Council agree to is to keep, is the long-standing tradition of having Councillors Notices of Motion and Questions with Notice, up the front of the agenda. ‘I don’t want to see them move towards the end of the meeting as is proposed. If they come after Matters Arising and Reports of the General Manager, we may well see the democratically elected Councillors, who the public expects to bring questions to the Chamber and move Motions, have their business relegated to the late hours of the night, or not even debated at all. That needs to be moved up to where it was before.
‘These are some of the aspects I would like us to see continue and maintain from our current practice. Let’s work out a way to modify this proposal before us, to ensure that.’
There are options
Cr Elly Bird spoke in favour of the Code of Meeting Practice as it is drafted. ‘I attempted to move a motion along these lines back in the last term, around managing public access a little bit more carefully. There are options there if more than the allowable numbers of people choose to request to speak on a matter.
‘The General Manager may request the speakers nominate amongst themselves who to address – they may also nominate to combine and have two people address the council at one time within the time limit and the other provision is that if too many people apply again, there’s an option to increase the number of speakers on particularly contentious matters.’
Cr Bird said she thought that there were options to allow healthy debate. ‘Should there be significant public interest in the matter, it just streamlines that a little bit more and makes us less susceptible to abuse of the provision.’
Not good for the decision-making process
Cr Bird said that addressing the agenda order made sense. ‘Often we have had to defer or delay important matters or deal with really important matters brought to us through business of Council until a very late hour, which isn’t good for decision-making processes.
‘The other point I would make is that at any time we can alter the order of business and so, should a Notice of Motion have a lot of interest from the community or be well supported by the community, we can always bring it upfront of the meeting.
‘I do support it, I’m not going to bring an amendment on it, but the only one I’m a bit nervous about, is increasing Councillors speaking time back up to five minutes from four minutes.’
A painful process
Cr Vanessa Ekins wanted to speak against limiting the number of speakers for similar reasons that Councillor Guise raised. ’In the last term of Council there was a long time spent sitting down with his Code of Meeting Practice, and a painful process it was too, but, at the time it was felt that when there are controversial matters, it’s really important that we hear from as many speakers as possible and that’s why we made the number of speakers unlimited.
You’ll have noticed over the course of the last months we’ve been in this chamber, that some items really ignite the fire in the belly of our community and we have a lot of people come and address us here. There are other nights where it’s not so interesting or controversial and we don’t have that many speakers.
An intimidating environment
‘I think that the least we can do, is sit in this room and hear those voices – people that make the effort to come here. It’s quite an intimidating environment. It’s really hard to sit there and speak in this formal environment to people – you notice hands shaking and how nervous people are, but they feel strongly enough that they want to come and do it. I think it’s up to us to listen.
‘I know myself that it’s sometimes been the sixth or seventh speaker that’s changed my mind on a view because they’re presented a completely different way of viewing a topic and raised information that I hadn’t even considered. I don’t think it’s a big ask for us to listen – I know we can read emails and we can take phone calls, but it’s a really powerful thing when you have a voice in this chair from someone who’s made the effort to leave the comfort of their home and sit here and speak to us in this formal environment, about something they care about.
‘We need that diversity of voices.
Cr Ekins said she was also unhappy about moving the Notices of Motion down towards the back of the paper. ‘That’s one of the very few opportunities, in fact, almost the only opportunity we have Councillors to raise matters that are brought to our attention by our community. It’s the only thing we get to do to say put up a notice of motion. The only voice we have. Sure we have some input during workshops, and we can make amendments to things that are brought to our attention by staff, but a Notice of Motion is the voice of our community.
‘It’s vitally important that we maintain that and put it at the front of the business paper.’
Those in favour of adopting the Code of Meeting Practice and putting it on exhibition were Councillors Bird, Hall, Gordon, Jensen, Bing, Rob and Krieg. Those opposed were Councillors, Ekins and Guise.
Any new or amended Code of Meeting Practice needs to be advertised, with the period of public exhibition not less than 28 days and a period not less than 42 during which submissions may be made to the council.
The Draft Code of Meeting Practice will go on exhibition as is and the community will have their chance to comment.