New council strategy gives public the boot

The general public is now banned from Derwent Valley Council
workshops if not invited to attend.

PUBLIC participation at Derwent Valley Council workshops has been shown the door after eight years of unusually free access to a municipal council. In proposing the change at last month’s council meeting, deputy mayor Ben Shaw said the time saving of 30 minutes twice a month would allow the elected members to focus on strategic planning.

Cr Shaw moved, seconded by Cr Paul Belcher, that the council end its 30-minute open session at the twice-monthly councillor workshops, and that those workshops become “strategic councillor workshops” to be held, at a minimum, on the first Thursday of each month.

Introducing the motion, Cr Shaw said the proposal had been discussed in workshops and other places and was all about the council “getting better at what we do”. He described the workshops as generally poorly attended and said there were many other ways for the public to have contact with their councillors. (See the full detail of Cr Shaw’s proposal below.)

Cr Shaw said as well as leaving more time for strategic planning, changing the workshop structure would be better for councillors and staff from an occupational health and safety perspective and would also reduce the cost of having staff present for long hours.

Following convention, the mayor did not address the motion except for an off-the-cuff remark that there had been “some surprises” in the deputy mayor’s comments.

Cr Frank Pearce said he was prepared to trial the new arrangements while also encourage the next council to review the matter after this year’s local government elections. He said the 30-minute open sessions had unproductive in some ways. “Sometimes we get questions that would be dealt with simply by referring them through to the general manager or on our website,” he said.

Cr James Graham said he had spent many years in the public gallery prior to his election. “I don’t think we should stop what we’ve been doing. For 10 years I was on the other side of that railing. You could rock up and ask your question – two questions if you were lucky – and you couldn’t relate them to the agenda.”

Cr Graham said if there had been any deficiency in public participation since the councillor workshops were opened up, it had been the council’s failure to bring the community along with it. He said he would be voting against the removal of public access at workshops. “I really feel that it is the one opportunity that a ratepayer really has to rock up and do what they need to do,” he said. Cr Graham’s remarks were met with applause from the public gallery.

Next to speak was Cr Paul Belcher who said he too was in favour of the motion. “Anyone can contact me 24/7, they don’t need to come to a workshop at 6.30pm in the middle of winter when it’s -2 to tell me about some issues that are going on,” Cr Belcher said. He said he agreed with the deputy mayor’s proposal but also agreed with Cr Pearce that it could be reviewed in future.

Cr Barry Lathey said he agreed with the motion in part, but felt that having the first 30 minutes of each workshop open to the public allowed residents to come along and talk to the council. “There are members [of the public] who like doing that,” he said. Cr Lathey said he would not support the motion and he was also applauded as he took his seat.

Cr Julie Triffett said the council needed to get on with its strategic planning. “I’ll be supporting the motion,” she said, adding that she agreed the decision could be reviewed in future.

Closing the debate, Cr Shaw said he agreed with Cr Graham on the importance of the public being able to attend, “but I just haven’t seen it in the three-and-a-half years that I’ve been here, enough to warrant it.” Cr Shaw said the new council would be able to review its position on workshops, “and certainly this council again in a month’s time can change it if that’s what they wish to do.”

Cr Shaw said most councillors had frequent contact with ratepayers and residents and were: “more accessible than ever before because of the digital age.”

When put to the vote the motion was carried 5-2, with Councillors Evans, Shaw, Triffitt, Pearce and Belcher in favour, and Crs Graham and Lathey opposed. Cr Anne Salt was absent.

The council has held several closed workshops since this motion was carried last month, moving to a new time and location.

Councillors Workshops

That the Council:
1. discontinue the 30 minute public open session at Councillors Workshops and that they become Strategic Councillor Workshops
2. at minimum hold a Councillors Workshop on the first Thursday of each month to decide the work load for that month and any further workshop dates.

To make Council more effective and efficient in its duties to save money on unnecessary costs and to get Elected Members focusing on strategic planning.  Council does not have a current Community Strategic Plan, Asset Management Plan or long term Financial Plan.  All of these things are extremely important for the organisation to move forward.

Elected members currently meet on the first and second Thursday of each month commencing  at  6.30pm with the first 30 minutes open to members of the public. A substantial amount of time is being spent on  discussions regarding reactive issues on items that could be dealt with quite easily  through better communication and working with the Executive Managers.

The removal of the public open session will allow Elected Members an additional 30 minutes per meeting to focus on Strategic issues. During my past 3½ years on Council we have very rarely seen members of the public attend the open session of the Councillors Workshops however we still have to wait 30 minutes to commence  discussions regarding our workload.  If members of the public do attend it is generally the same people discussing the same issues that could be fixed via other means,  for example on the website, emailing or phoning Councillors or writing a letter addressed to all councillors.

During monthly Council meetings, members of the public have 15 minutes available at the beginning of every council meeting for Public Question Time. If a member of the public has a question it is not only noted and answered but is on public record as the Council meetings are recorded. This in turn would also create more interest in our monthly Council Meetings which are normally not well attended by the public.

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