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Attempt to reduce CVC meeting times a ‘shambles’

Geoff Helisma

A mayoral minute that aimed to reduce the time it takes to hold a meeting was the first item of business at Clarence Valley Council’s March 30 monthly meeting, however, one hour and ten minutes later councillors moved on without making a decision.

Each of the three points of mayor Jim Simmons’s mayoral minute were challenged. Councillor Simmons proposed setting a maximum of three questions per councillor on each item of business, “noting that questions with notice asked in writing [by 11am on the day preceding the meeting] and their responses can be included in the minutes of the ordinary meeting if the councillor indicates this is required”.

He proposed a reduction of councillors’ debating time, from five to three minutes, and wrote in his minute that if the first two points were adopted that they were “not material [and did] not impact on the community and therefore [it] does not require public consultation”.

During questions, Cr Karen Toms asked, “Where did you get your decision … to not go on pubic exhibition”, if the code of meeting practice is amended, “the Office of Local Government (OLG)?” Councillor Simmons said he had received advice from the general manager, Ashley Lindsay, and Corporate & Governance director Laura Black.

Councillor Debrah Novak asked, “Why not have a conversation with the community?” Councillor Simmons said, “That’s your view, I have mine….” He acknowledged that councillors are here to represent the community, “but we are also here to represent the council”. Councillor Toms said it was “her understanding” that a mayoral minute “should not be used for non-urgent” matters. However, the mayor said he regarded the matter as urgent.

Councillor Novak asked the mayor why he had not consulted with other councillors prior to tabling the mayoral minute. Councillor Simmons said it is “not my practice to ask councillors what they think … and this is a pretty important [issue]”. Debate about each point and various amendments was confused and hindered by procedural uncertainty.

Early on in debate, Cr Baker called a point of order (POO) and pointed out that an amendment to remove point 2 (restricting debate to three minutes) would result in a double negative and therefore prevent councillors from making a decision. The mayor ruled against Cr Baker and said, “I think this is a lawful amendment.” Councillor Toms said the proposed reduction made her feel like she was “being gagged”, and that the proposal was “undemocratic” and an “abuse of a mayoral minute”. Councillor Greg Clancy began debating point 1, which was, arguably, part of the amendment.

The mayor said Cr Clancy could not address point 1, because it wasn’t part of the amendment. Councillor Baker called another POO and made suggestions on how to address the problem; however, the mayor said that he “understood that we all know what is being debated”. Councillor Clancy called a successful motion of dissent against the mayor, after which Cr Clancy was able to continue his debate.

Cr Baker reiterated his views and described the process using the “nicest term I can coin … it’s a shambles”. The amendment to remove point 2 was adopted on the mayor’s casting vote. As debate continued, Cr Williamson posed, “If this [amendment] is lost what will you debate? Councillor Simmons responded, “I don’t think it is a direct negative, in my view.” He said “there is no endeavour on my behalf to gag councillors” and reiterated his view that there was no need to exhibit the policy changes if they were adopted.

Cr Baker said, “Since coming before us today the mayoral minute has been systematically destroyed by debating the whole motion when amendments are put before us.” Subsequently, Cr Peter Ellem said, “’Round and ‘round the gooseberry bush we go again – I will not support anything that restricts lines of questioning for councillors.

“I don’t support any sterilisation of democratic debate. “…This is a slippery slope moving away from democracy towards fascism and limiting the cut and thrust of what we do here.” At this point the mayor said, “Now we move back to points 1 and 2.” Councillor Baker moved a POO and said, “Point one has been negatived”.

After some further argy bargy about meeting procedure and what had or hadn’t been decided, Cr Simmons said that debate of the original motion could now commence, however, he acknowledged he’d made a “mistake” and corrected himself, saying he should have said there was a foreshadowed motion. Then a councillor spoke off microphone and a short period of silence followed on the web broadcast.

The mayor wound up the debate at 3.14pm and said, “It was my intent to shorten meeting … but we’ll move on.” At the meeting’s 7.30pm conclusion, which necessitated “rushing through” several late agenda items and the deferral of several other items to the April CVC meeting, Cr Williamson said the five and a half hour meeting (five hours is the normal maximum time), “highlighted how important your mayoral minute was today”.