Notices of Motion To Open Up Council Meetings Fail To Gain Support

At the Ordinary Meeting of the Council held on 8th June I moved the following motion after giving prior notice of my intention to do so:-

‘That the current practice of conducting confidential ‘Discussion Day’ sessions to preview the agenda items for pending Ordinary Meetings of the Council, be discontinued’

I had given further notice and foreshadowed that if the above motion was lost I intended to move the following motion:-

‘That the current practice of conducting confidential ‘Discussion Day’ sessions to preview the agenda items for pending Ordinary Meetings of the Council be opened to the public except with regard to items which would otherwise be deemed as being of a confidential nature in accordance with the meeting provisions of the Local Government Act’.

Unfortunately, I was unable to gain the support of a seconder for the motion which therefore lapsed.

I had prepared my discussion in support of the motion however I was obviously not able to read it out at the meeting. I think that it’s appropriate to explain my view on this controversial issue so I’ve pasted it below:-

‘The Department of Local Government has provided Guidelines on the best practices for informal briefing sessions in the lead-up to formal Council meetings. I seek leave to table those Guidelines.

Following amalgamation, Council adopted the practice of holding informal briefing sessions or ‘Discussion Days’ in the lead-up to its ordinary general meetings.

Typically, these involve all councillors and a number of senior officers and last for some 5 to 6 hours. The community is not permitted to attend these sessions and all of the discussions that take place are deemed to be confidential.

Relevant officers brief Councillors on each agenda item who are given the opportunity to ask questions or clarify certain points. There are certainly benefits to be gained by this system as the discussion tends to be more open and relaxed and perhaps more probing questions can be asked than would normally be raised in the public forum.

I personally found this to be particularly useful during the twelve months following amalgamation when Councillors were sorting through the variety of issues and coming to terms with the various ways in which the former Councils operated. Whilst this system may be convenient and efficient from an elected representative’s point of view, there is obviously widespread community concern regarding the covert nature of the process. What’s clear to me now is that the benefits of the convenience factor needs to be weighed up against the perception held by the community and the resulting level of confidence in the manner in which elected representatives are making important decisions. On balance, I believe that in this case the issue of public scepticism must take precedence and the only way that I can see to address the issue is to either do away with the Discussion Day sessions altogether or open them up to scrutiny.

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