Item 9.9 – Local Law Public Question Changes

Lipshutz moved motion to accept ‘as printed’. Esakoff seconded.

LIPSHUTZ:  started off with the less ‘controversial’ aspects of changing the local law such as defining the meaning of ‘drones’ and ‘urgent business’. On public questions repeated the changes – ie questions have to be 150 words or less; submitted 24 hours earlier than currently; 2 questions per person and ‘if present at the meeting the questions will be read out’.  If not present then answers ‘will be forwarded to him’ but ‘not minuted’. Claimed that he received ‘numerous’ questions ‘every day of the week’ up to 3 or 4 a day. Those he can’t answer he ‘refers to an officer’. Said that ‘today’ with emails, phones, etc. it is ‘pretty easy to ask a question’ and to contact councillors. ‘So why do we need public questions’ even though it ‘is important to have some public questions’.  In his time on council there has been a ‘diminution’ of the aspect of public questions. Claimed that people ask public questions ‘not because’ the ‘answers they really want to know’ but because ‘they are simply out to embarrass councillors and council and that is inappropriate’.  Councillors job is to ‘make decisions’ for the benefit of the community and ‘all of us work very hard on that’ and what they get paid doesn’t compensate for the ‘many hours’ they put in. They don’t do it ‘for the money’ but for the community. People might think they do the wrong thing but the ‘way to handle that is at the election’. So they are trying to do ‘the right thing’ and ‘when you get questions that are seeking to embarrass the council’ then ‘that is inappropriate’. ‘If you want to have a question answered come to the council meeting’. ‘Many questions are being asked’ by residents who ‘have no interest in the council meeting at all’. They send a question in because ‘they want it in the minutes’. Went on with changes to Right of Reply where there now didn’t have to be a written statement provided to all other councillors beforehand but this was ‘subject ‘ to councillors being given notice ‘by 12 noon of the day’. Thanked submitters and said that these ‘had been considered’.

ESAKOFF: said that Lipshutz ‘had covered every single point’ so she didn’t have anything to add.

DELAHUNTY:  whilst she ‘agreed with some of the changes’ she was voting against the motion. Thought that  the proposed changes to public questions ‘ actually diminishes the participation’ of residents. Said that ‘the submissions we received endorsed my views on this’. Said she would like to see ‘public questions spoken here in the chamber’. Agreed that councillors get phone calls so ‘what happens here in the chamber should actually reflect real life and not seek to distance ourselves from it’. Said she’s got a ‘great respect’ for Local Government and its ‘proximity to people’ and the ‘participatory element’ and ‘would hate to see that diminished in any way’. Stated that ‘the more’ the chamber becomes ‘about us talking and not residents talking’ and if you’ve got questions then you ‘are seeking to embarrass people’ then ‘that’s a lack of respect’ and ‘the more we show that lack of respect’ the ‘more distant we become’ from residents. Gave an example of going out to consultation on raising rates for the budget and said ‘we don’t engage enough’ with residents and that this ‘chamber should be your chamber’ and people should be able to ‘walk in and ask questions’. Thought that all councils ‘should be the same across Victoria’ in terms of meeting procedures. Thought the motion was a ‘retrograde step’ in community participation. Found it all ‘quite insulting’.

MAGEE: said his email and phone is ‘advertised widely’ and he does get questions. Said that public questions have included getting ’16 to 20 questions from one person’ and ‘we do have the responsibility to conduct council business’. Said that ‘most of the questions’ are about ‘questions that were asked at the previous council meeting wanting clarification’ because either the questioner ‘didn’t understand or didn’t get the answer they were looking for and wanted clarification’.  ‘But to wait half an hour’ before times for questions are closed before submitting the question , and they’ve got 26 questions tonight so to ‘try to answer on our busiest day’ in the three week period between council meetings is unacceptable because ‘these questions could have been asked 2 weeks ago’. Said that ‘there’s never been a question asked of myself that hasn’t been answered’. To say ‘you didn’t answer my question’ properly at the council meeting and then to ‘discover that the question came in at 2 minutes to 12’ so he ‘understands’ why Lipshutz is ‘bringing this into the local law’.  Told people to ask their questions as ‘early as possible. You will get an answer’.

HO: said that he would ‘take’ questions from the public at his ‘consultation’ meetings at the café and they can also email him. His ‘consultation’ time would be 10am Tuesday.

SOUNNESS: also has ‘concerns’ with the motion. He feels ‘fairly strongly but not massively strongly’ about the public questions aspect. Acknowledged the submission from the Glen Eira Environment Group.  Wasn’t sure whether the 150 words per question should be ‘limited’. ‘Personally I do feel that we should have a record’ of every decision made by council as to who voted for what rather than waiting for a division. Also wanted ‘conversations’ with residents.

LOBO: agreed in part with Lipshutz that sometimes questions ‘can be a nuisance’ but ‘we need to think why would the person come back again?’ ‘Just because we don’t like letters after letters doesn’t mean that all letters are rubbish’. In a democratic society we ‘need to give the public the authority to work in the chambers’. Said state and federal governments have to explain why the public ‘isn’t given a chance to talk’. Stated that ‘it is important that we should not be seen in any way as gagging’. ‘That’s not our job’. Residents are paying councillors and ‘we need to look at the relationship as masters and servants’. Said he would be a ‘hypocrite if I can’t give my residents the chance to talk’.

DELAHUNTY: wanted to ask Magee and Ho on ‘their thoughts about mismatch’ between questions in chamber and questions via letter or email. Wanted ‘for example’ 15 minutes at the start of council meetings for residents to stand up and ask questions in the chamber and ‘would that be an acceptable change’?

MAGEE: said he would ‘encourage that’.

HYAMS: said that Delahunty’s view wasn’t what was advertised, so this would mean that if they were going to change things the proposed amendment would have to be readvertised. He also ‘disagrees’ with the ‘principle as well’. They have rules about questions being out of order ..

DELAHUNTY: raised a point of order. Said she asked for ‘clarification’ only and is ‘not seeking’ anything, just asking a question.

HYAMS: said that ‘leads’ onto the submissions where there are a few good ideas and ‘to adopt them now we would need to put them out to public consultation and start the whole process again’. As for having recordings of council, that ‘would require a change of the local law’. On public questions ‘you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water but when something has been abused solidly for ten years’ then ‘you do perhaps want to limit it a little’.  People send in public questions and ‘you’ve got no idea who they are because they never show themselves’ and they ‘barrage’ you with questions or ‘ask a majority of questions’ with ‘allegations’.  And people ask public questions ‘if they want to get something on the agenda’ and ‘there is a place for that’ like with skyrail and people wanting that on the agenda to have council’s position made clear. But when ‘abuse’ happens ‘more often than not, then we need to act’. So if people want to ask public questions and ‘get it on the record, come and show yourself’. ‘Let us see who you are’. Thought that ‘this strikes the right balance’.

DELAHUNTY: said she wasn’t suggesting that we ‘now alter’ what was advertised. Asked Pilling that according to the current local law it was up to his ‘discretion whether or not you allow questions to come from the public’. Given this, she thought there was room to ‘move an amended motion that we strongly encourage you to use your discretion’ to allow public questions at the start. Didn’t think that this would ‘require any sort of re-advertising’.

PILLING: said he was aware of this clause but was ‘happy to take advice’. Delahunty then read out the section of the Local Law which covered this.

LIPSHUTZ: interrupted with a point of order saying that her question was ‘not pertinent to the motion at hand’.

Extended discussion between Pilling and the CEO.

PILLING: said he wasn’t ‘going to break long standing protocols’. ‘We haven’t done this in the past’ and they’ve considered this in a ‘measured way’ at assemblies and ‘I’m not prepared to make a judgement on the run here’.

DELAHUNTY: then moved an amendment that ‘the chair use the discretion afforded him’ to ‘open the meeting to public questions’. Sounness seconded.

HYAMS: point of order, asking whether it is ‘proper for council to direct’ the mayor to use his discretion.

DELAHUNTY: point of order saying she didn’t ‘direct’ she sought to ‘encourage’.

PILLING: again wanted advice from the CEO.

CEO: said it would not ‘be proper for council to direct the Mayor’ but as Delahunty says she is merely ‘requesting that the council encourage’ the mayor.

HYAMS: point of order saying that this isn’t an amendment ‘but a new motion’.

DELAHUNTY: said that this wasn’t grounds for a ‘point of order’ according to the Local Law

PILLING: ‘I will determine that’. Another long delay and discussion with the CEO. Finally said that he will ‘uphold the point of order’ quoting clause 236

DELAHUNTY: wanted ‘clarification’, saying that the proposed motion is about public questions and that her motion is about public questions, how can it be deemed as ‘irrelevant’.

PILLING: ‘that’s my ruling’

DELAHUNTY: said ‘she knows’ but ‘I am seeking clarification on how you come to that ruling’.

PILLING: said it was irrelevant because it didn’t ‘go to the spirit of the motion’ and ‘that’s my ruling’.

SOUNNESS: asked whether the chair would ‘consider’ another discussion at assembly and then ‘bringing it back to a future council meeting’.

PILLING: ‘no, my ruling still stands’. Claimed ‘we’ve discussed this many times in assemblies’.

LOBO: said that ‘we would like to know clearly from the residents if they really want to do this’.

PILLING: raised a point of order that Lobo hadn’t asked his question

LOBO: ‘we need to ask them, and how can we ask them that?’

PILLING: said it wasn’t a question.

DELAHUNTY: point of order – ‘that was quite clearly posed as a question’.

Hyams then wanted the motion put.

DELAHUNTY: said that ‘I raised a point of order and you were about to rule on that point of order’ and that ‘I am interested in the answer to it’.

PILLING: he didn’t think that Lobo’s question was ‘relevant to the motion at hand’.

LOBO: said he didn’t agree.

PILLING: that’s ‘your prerogative’.

LIPSHUTZ:  quoted Delahunty as wanting process to be like ‘real life’

DELAHUNTY: point of order that she didn’t say that, she said that process should ‘mirror real life’.

LIPSHUTZ: said that councillors are ‘available many hours a day’ and ‘many of us are out there’ consulting with residents. We ‘respect our residents’. ‘Public questions is not real life’. They don’t ‘distance themselves’ because people ‘ring up’ and they ‘talk to people’. ‘we are as close to the public as we can be and public questions have nothing to do with that’.