Council open forums facing the axe

A councillor says the Derwent Valley Council open forums
(September forum pictured) were poorly attended.

A DECISION to start its meetings earlier and abolish its monthly open forums has been deferred until the Derwent Valley Council’s December meeting.

Last week’s first meeting of the new-look council looked set to adopt the revised meeting structure until two councillors spoke against the removal of the public forums.

After an informal agreement was reached at the previous week’s councillor workshop, general manager Greg Winton put forward a three-part motion including the schedule of meetings for 2019, starting council meetings at 5pm instead of 6.30pm, and holding four regional community forums as in previous years.

When the motion was put to the meeting on Thursday night, Cr Paul Belcher moved that the monthly meetings should start at 6pm, as 5pm could be too early for people with work commitments. This did not win any support and mayor Ben Shaw then called for someone to move the original recommendation.

Moving the motion as it was written, Cr Rachel Power said she lived the furthest away, and the earlier meeting time would make it easier for her to drive home, particularly in winter. “I do know that there are meetings that aren’t held here in New Norfolk and other councillors are also going to be encouraged to drive carefully as well,” Cr Power said.

Seconding the motion, Cr Anne Salt said the earlier meeting time was a good idea. “It is an efficient use of council’s staff time … hopefully if we trial it and see how it works … I think it’s a good move,” she said.

Cr Martyn Evans was next to speak, saying he would not be supporting the motion. “Obviously I am restricted by work and starting at 5pm will mean that I will more than likely miss a few starts to the meetings,” the former mayor said, adding that he understood the intent of the motion and realised that staff wages could be saved by the earlier start.

“Also I noticed that there is no time before the meetings for the community to have their say,” Cr Evans said. He said he had found the 30-minute public forums to be beneficial since they were introduced at Cr Shaw’s suggestion some months ago, replacing the previous system of public workshops.

Cr Belcher then asked for clarification of the status of the monthly public forums. “If the members of the public want to come and speak to the council are we setting a time for them to come in to a workshop or…”

Mayor Shaw said he believed the discussion at the last councillor workshop was that questions would still be able to be asked during public question time at the monthly meetings. “There is a new communications strategy coming to the council in December and it includes public open forums where the councillors would go out and base themselves in the community a few times a year,” Cr Shaw said, adding he had not yet seen the document.

General manager Winton said he believed the mayor was referring to the concept of “listening posts”, when the council as a whole could go to community events and other occasions in different areas of the municipality.

Cr Shaw said he had also held initial discussions in his first week as mayor, encouraging the general manager to open his doors to the public once a fortnight for half-hour meetings by appointment. Mr Winton he did not realise his door had been closed, but the mayor’s proposal would form part of the new communications strategy.

Cr Belcher said the council had gone from having three 30-minute public workshop sessions each month down to one 30-minute open forum and now this looked like being removed. “It was good for members of the public to be able to come and stress their concerns,” he said. “We have opened the doors and said ‘here we are’ and now we are closing the doors again. We should defer this and bring it back next month.”

Some of the public forums had been a waste of everyone’s
time, a councillor claimed (August forum pictured).

Cr Julie Triffett said the public forums had been discontinued because councillors had often been “sitting there for half an hour with maybe one person trying to think up a question to ask us. That was just a waste of their time and a waste of our time. That’s why it wasn’t continued,” she said.

Cr Triffett’s statement did not sit well with the public gallery, which had been on edge since it was revealed the motion had a wider intent than just a change of meeting time, requiring the mayor to call for quiet on several occasions during the debate.

Cr Belcher then moved that the item be deferred for further discussion at a workshop before being brought back to the December meeting. This was seconded by Cr Evans and was carried unanimously.

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