Council Defeats Motion For More Open Meetings

douglas shire council transparency

An attempt by Crs Zammataro and Noli to open up more Council meetings to the public was met with a hostile reception from the Mayor, who has campaigned on greater transparency, and Crs Scomazzon and McKeown.

Cr Zammataro’s Notice of Motion read: “That Council, in the interest of transparency, pass a resolution that all meetings, including workshops, be open to the public unless closed for one of the reasons specified in the Local Government Regulations 254J Closed meetings.”

The Local Government Act specifies all meetings be open but may be closed for specific reasons. If a meeting is to be closed, a resolution must be passed stating the reason and the nature of the matters to be considered while the meeting is closed.

In summary those matters are:
· the appointment, discipline or dismissal of the chief executive officer;
· industrial matters affecting employees;
· budget;
· rating concessions;
· legal proceedings by or against the local government;
· matters that may prejudice an individual, the local, state and commonwealth government and commercial discussions.

This section of the Act, requiring all meetings be open, unless closed for one of the reasons specified in the Act, has been strengthened over time in an attempt to reduce corruption in local government.

Cr Zammataro was referring to closed and confidential Councillor workshops, where, he says, most Council discussion takes place. He was concerned that “the majority of the time when a matter goes to an official meeting for a decision, the decision has already been made.”

He went on to explain the difficulty of discussing issues with constituents.

“Under the current arrangements, a Councillor may be reported and charged for discussing issues and topics that arise in the confidential Councillor workshops”, said Cr Zammataro. “The public are being denied the opportunity to listen to debate, and most ratepayers do not want to hear Councillors say ‘I can’t talk about it'”.

Currently general meetings in the public chamber are open but “workshops” are closed entirely.

It is not unusual for Councils to get around the provisions of the Act by having “workshops” so Councillors and staff can say what they like without public scrutiny.

Cr Zammataro’s motion was met with a barrage of opposition from Mayor Kerr, Cr Scomazzon and Cr McKeown.

The three Councillors covered similar ground – suggesting Crs Zammataro’s proposal, if adopted, would mean that meetings with individual Councillors, with the Mayor, and even “bus trips” and “meetings in cafes” would need to be open to the public and that the Local Government Association opposed this section of the Act.

Cr Scomazzon spoke first against the motion “are you suggesting that we invite the public to our outings?” she said.

“If we are to allow the workshops to be open to the public, there is a possibility that we will not get all the information that we get now as staff may be reluctant to present to us the full story as they do not want to be in the position that they can be targeted on social media for doing their job by certain members of groups of this community. Surely you don’t want that?”

Speaking for the motion, Cr Noli expressed her delight with the motion to provide greater transparency, describing herself as “ecstatic” about Cr Zammataro’s proposed motion,
“it is essential that the public be given the opportunity to hear the machinations of Council and how it works, how Councillors can ask questions, bring up suggestions, and how it is possible to contribute.”

Referring to the Operation Belcarra blueprint for integrity and reducing risks of corruption in local governments, Cr Noli argued that Cr Zammataro’s proposal “aligns neatly with the new reforms.”

“I would love the public to be able to see the machinations, debating, thought processes involved…it’s a great idea, good for everybody,” Cr Noli said.

Cr McKeown sought further discussion on the matter in a closed and confidential workshop. He noted that he had contacted the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) regarding their submission to the Director-General, strongly opposing informal meetings (such as workshops) being open to the public.

Cr Kerr attacked Cr Zammataro,” frankly, I hate to say it, but I believe it is a cheap political stunt. it’s cleverly misleading…”

He accused Cr Zammataro of wanting Council to livestream every conversation that occurs within this building and the depot…”do we invite the people to come for a bus ride?”

Without evidence or any reference he subsequently described the motion as illegal, immoral and destructive.

The Mayor attempted an alternative motion “… requesting the CEO to bring a report back to the August 2021 Ordinary Council meeting outlining the requirements to implement the “Building Douglas Committee” as a regular part of this Council’s calendar.”

Cr Noli explained that while an amendment could be proposed, an alternative motion at odds with the original motion was against standing orders.

Cr Kerr abandoned the alternative motion saying he would bring it to the next meeting in the form of a Mayoral Minute

Cr Zammataro’s motion was lost by 3 votes to 2.

Local Government Act, Sect 254J
Closed meetings
(1) A local government may resolve that all or part of a meeting of the local government be closed to the public.
(2) A committee of a local government may resolve that all or part of a meeting of the committee be closed to the public.
(3) However, a local government or a committee of a local government may make a resolution about a local government meeting under subsection (1) or (2) only if its councillors or members consider it necessary to close the meeting to discuss one or more of the following matters—
(a) the appointment, discipline or dismissal of the chief executive officer;
(b) industrial matters affecting employees;
(c) the local government’ s budget;
(d) rating concessions;
(e) legal advice obtained by the local government or legal proceedings involving the local government including, for example, legal proceedings that may be taken by or against the local government;
(f) matters that may directly affect the health and safety of an individual or a group of individuals;
(g) negotiations relating to a commercial matter involving the local government for which a public discussion would be likely to prejudice the interests of the local government;
(h) negotiations relating to the taking of land by the local government under the Acquisition of Land Act 1967;
(i) a matter the local government is required to keep confidential under a law of, or formal arrangement with, the Commonwealth or a State.
(4) However, a local government or a committee of a local government must not resolve that a part of a local government meeting at which a decision mentioned in section 150ER(2), 150ES(3) or 150EU(2) of the Act will be considered, discussed, voted on or made be closed.