Councillors slam public behaviour at annual meeting

The crowded venue for the council’s annual general meeting.

SEVERAL councillors have taken to social media to decry what they describe as bullying, intimidation and bad language in the public gallery at Thursday night’s Derwent Valley Council annual general meeting. Mayor Ben Shaw described the situation as a “line in the sand” moment, calling for increased powers to deal with “unruly people at meetings”, and saying he would introduce new “house rules” next month.

With 29 people in the public gallery, and seven councillors and four council staff present, the annual general meeting had a bumpy start when voters declined to endorse the minutes of last year’s AGM as an accurate report, and voted against the adoption of the council’s annual report.

A motion of no-confidence in the council looked likely to pass until it was explained that the number of people who abstained from voting would be added to the “no” votes, in accordance with Local Government rules, resulting in the motion failing by three votes. Six councillors had voted against the motion, which some saw as a conflict of interest. Some in the gallery erupted, leading to an explanation of the voting process and a repeat of the vote, producing the same result.

The meeting lasted about 45 minutes and the audio recording is expected to be made available on the council website early next week.

Cr Rachel Power posted a video on social media yesterday afternoon, saying there was clear evidence of bullying of councillors and council staff at the AGM and the monthly meeting that followed. She said there was also bullying of people in the public gallery. In separate comments, Cr Power said she had received written permission to speak publicly about the issue.

Mayor Shaw and deputy mayor Jessica Cosgrove both endorsed Cr Power’s remarks online. Cr Cosgrove had also made a Facebook post during the council meetings, saying: “FINALLY!!! The rumour circulating that the council gave me as the operator of the New Norfolk market $30,000 cash (and to train me) has been publicly shut down!! Also a motion of no confidence in this council was NOT carried!! Now let’s get on to focusing on the positives and what we were elected to do!!”

Cr Power’s Facebook post.

In her video, Cr Power said she did not accept bullying, and said “what happened” in the council meetings on Thursday night was “completely unacceptable behaviour”. “As a council group we’ve discussed this and we all agree that this is not going to happen,” Cr Power said.

“So there is a line in the sand that’s been drawn. We want your communication. We want your engagement and we want you to speak with us. But we don’t accept name calling. We don’t accept bad language and we certainly don’t accept the references that were coming out last night. There was clear bullying, not just of councillors and council staff, but also of other people who didn’t vote the way the people wanted them to.”

Cr Power’s remarks have been questioned by several people who attended the meeting, including businesswoman Marita Rose who said it was the first council meeting she had been to. “It was interesting, entertaining, educational. I didn’t witness bullying, I witnessed passionate disenchanted members of the valley, wanting answers and they often didn’t get answers. I encourage more community members to attend,” she said.

Responding to former councillor Wayne Shoobridge’s request to define the bullying she had observed, Cr Power said she was surprised Mr Shoobridge didn’t hear it, “as it was within less than a metre from you. I witnessed one member of the gallery intimidate another into voting a certain way. I heard the mayor, other councillors and staff called names … I witnessed people trying to have a say and being shouted down by others. I witnessed language that does not belong in council chambers. I witnessed people attempting to smear people’s reputations. I witnessed members of the gallery being sworn at and called names, and also councillors and the mayor. One of the people from the gallery has stated to me in her 70 years she has never been called a c***. If you don’t define that as bullying then perhaps you need to redefine your definition,” Cr Power said.

Another former councillor and former council employee, Chris Lester, said it was “fair and reasonable” for ratepayers and members of the public to question council on issues of concern to them. “For instance, I asked questions about whether council was expending ratepayers’ money on private enterprise. Are those questions unreasonable? I think not.”

Commenting about Cr Power’s video, mayor Ben Shaw said the behaviour described by Cr Power had been around for too long and councillors had been expected to just “deal with it.” “Rachel and all of my councillors have my full support in this message and this is a line-in-the-sand moment,” he said. “On behalf of my council group [and] our staff, we are not putting up with abuse, intimidation and bullying any more.”

Cr Ben Shaw

“I am calling on the minister, the director and the LGAT to come up with some methods to help deal with these issues. Councillors have no recourse for action when bullied, harassed … when disgusting lies are made up about them they are just supposed to sit silently and wait for it to blow over. There was a clear message given to me by our newly-elected members last night  and that was they will not tolerate this behaviour at our meetings. And I am backing them 100% with some new house rules in meetings to be introduced in January.

“We want a safe, respectful place for our community to air questions and for our councillors to carry out their duties in a fair and safe environment. We welcome all questions, criticism and any other conversations at council but it needs to be in a respectful manner. With a brand new communication plan coming forward we will get better. A line is drawn and a new era for council is coming.”

Responding to Cr Cosgrove’s Facebook post about the failure of the no-confidence motion, Cr Shaw said the council was never at any risk. “It’s even sillier that the people doing it actually thought that it would throw council out,” he said. “Even if it was passed there is no steps after that apart from we would have ‘noted’ the motion from the floor and moved on anyway. We are democratically elected, 10 people can not throw the council out by simply saying they don’t want you anymore … especially when two of them had sour grapes from losing the election.”

Cr Cosgrove added: “If the behaviour of some in the public gallery last night was not so disgusting I would say it was simply comical!”

Cr Shaw said he wished councillors could just get on with the job. “I’ll be writing to the minister and the director … asking for stronger powers when dealing with unruly people at meetings. It’s beyond a joke, some of the behaviour.”

Cr Cosgrove “liked” a remark by a Facebook commentator who said: “What is wrong with people up there,” which drew the response: “It’s a known area for dense populations of medically diagnosed mental health problems, drug use and low socioeconomics. This doesn’t define the whole area, but it certainly puts a veil over the great people who also live there,” from another commentator.

In her video, Cr Power said she did not ever want to see a repeat of what she witnessed in the meetings on Thursday night. “There are smart people in our community who have very very valid points. But you can get your point across without having to be nasty and without having to make general members of the public feel uncomfortable, let alone councillors who were doing a job, for something that they love, for a passion, and for a community that they want to serve, because if they didn’t want to serve the community they wouldn’t be elected.”

Cr Power said the councillors had been elected by more than 3000 people of the Derwent Valley community. “That’s the people who we work for, not just for the five people who caused an amazing uproar and the other 20-odd who encouraged it,” she said. “It was not fair on anybody let alone yourselves because your point of view doesn’t get clearly communicated. All we could hear … was the bad language the derogatory terms and words that I certainly don’t want to hear in a council context ever ever again. It is absolutely not OK.

“If you’ve got a problem that’s not being addressed, there’s ways to have it addressed. Turning up and abusing council members, council staff, and making people feel generally uncomfortable doesn’t get your point across and doesn’t get the solution that you’re seeking. I want to help my community but I can’t do that if all I’m doing is putting out fires and making my family feel safe.
“So please, the communication offers are there, and there’s gunna be more ways that you can communicate with council, not just at council meetings. The doors are opening up and we’re working hard to make sure that that’s happening. You know what, we’ve been in there for less than two months, so give us some time to get things right. Everyone knows it takes time to do the job right. So let’s get the job done and stop the ridiculous behaviour.”
Cr Power did not respond to a request from the New Norfolk News for additional information about the council’s response to the issues she has raised.

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