New rules take the ‘personal’ out of council debates


MORNINGTON Peninsula councillors are divided over a revised code of conduct that discourages them from making personal attacks on each other and sets out the process for dealing with bad behaviour.

However, shire CEO Carl Cowie told The News he expects that the version of the code of conduct adopted at last week’s special council meeting will be signed by all councillors before the end of June.

On Friday, the mayor Cr Graham Pittock said that while he did not agree with some of the amendments, councillors had no choice but to sign the code and “just agree to abide by it”.

The state government introduced reforms in March requiring all councils to revise their councillor code and adopt it by 4 July.

At a special meeting on Monday to sign off on the amended code – which has a much stronger focus on expected behaviours – councillors disagreed on its effectiveness, with claims that it would stifle debate.

Among the 10-page list of expectations and behaviours, the code makes it punishable for councillors to divulge confidential information, accept gifts other than of “token value”, “malign” other councillors for their decisions, and use council resources such as mobile phones and cars, for personal use.

The code backs up state government reforms introduced last year to deal with rogue councillors, who will now face an independent conduct panel that can impose six-month suspensions.

Before the new laws, the government was only able to sack an entire council if there were ongoing problems.

After the meeting Cr Hugh Fraser said the council was trying to push through changes before the deadline, calling the draft put up by management a “scissors and paste” job, inconsistent with the Local Government Act.

Cr Fraser said the Act already contained “confidentiality” clauses to promote transparent council business, but that the revised code of conduct departed from this and would prevent debate.

“The result is a repressive uncertain code which, under pain of a misconduct allegation, could be used to stifle democratic debate by councillors in council and the community.”

Cr Fraser said his request for legal advice to help council sort it out was refused by shire management.

Voting for the code were deputy mayor Cr Bev Colomb, and Crs Anne Shaw, Antonella Celi, David Gibb, David Garnock and Andrew Dixon.

Opposing the motion to adopt the code were the mayor Graham Pittock and Crs Fraser, Tim Rodgers and Tim Wood.

Cr Celi said the code would improve the way councillors discussed council issues and set a “clear framework” that would prevent councillors launching personal attacks against each other.

“It’s like muddy the football not the player and that’s what makes a good sport in the game,” she said.

Under the legislative reforms, all councillors must sign the revised code within one month of the majority of councillors passing the resolution, or face disqualification.

First published in the Mornington News – 14 June 2016


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