Revolt over shire ‘muzzle’ bid


MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire councillors have rejected a proposed media policy that limited their ability to make public statements and have “off the record” conversations with journalists.

The draft stated that information about the shire could only be released to the media by the mayor Cr Bev Colomb, CEO Carl Cowie, and communications, media and events manager Mark Kestigian.

The policy was drawn up by Mr Kestigian who withdrew it from the Tuesday 13 June council meeting agenda after a majority of councillors expressed concern that it restricted their roles as elected representatives of the public.

Cr Colomb told The News that the draft media policy was “a very early mock-up and [councillors] decided they wanted to create a media and communications policy from the ground up”.

The deputy mayor Bryan Payne said the proposed media policy “treated councillors as employees” and failed to give them the “respect” deserved by elected representatives.

When outlining the need for rewriting the media policy, Mr Kestigian said “media scrutiny and engagement present risks to the shire’s reputation and community confidence in the council and shire operations”.

He said the policy was designed to “help manage constructive working relationships” with the media and “present a consistent and positive image of shire activities and services”.

Once adopted, the policy would ensure communications with the media were “strategically managed with only authorised representatives communicating with media outlets”.

The policy also acknowledges that “media have a vital role in holding [the shire] to account on behalf of the community”.

It warns against whistleblowing saying that there were “procedures” available to report “improper conduct or detrimental action and protect people who make these reports”.

The draft policy states that Cr Colomb, Mr Cowie and Mr Kestigian “are authorised to speak to the media on matters of [shire] policy and operations”. The draft includes the statement that “media inquiries are welcomed and will be responded to promptly”.

Mr Kestigian “declined to comment” three days after being emailed questions from The News about his “draft” media policy.

Cr Payne said the proposed policy inhibited the ability of the mayor Cr Colomb to speak with the media without first approaching communications manager Mr Kestigian or CEO Mr Cowie.

“Cr Colomb is very capable and doesn’t need to go to them first. If there’s an issue relating to my ward [Nepean], I’ll speak on it,” he said.

Cr Payne said the shire’s public relations was being handled “extremely poorly”.

“And you don’t do it by handcuffing your [elected] people.”

Cr Payne cited a rent increase for The Hastings Club as an example of the shire’s poor public relations

The increase recently adopted by the shire was based on the club’s income from poker machines.

“People got the idea there was no basis for it [the rent increase], but when you look at the income from poker machines, it’s a very reasonable rent,” Cr Payne said.

“The shire never really told the public why [there was an increase], which made it difficult for the ward councillor [Kate Roper] to explain.”

Cr Payne, a former CEO of the City of Springvale, said a similar situation existed at Noble Park where a football club with pokies was charged a much higher rent than had been historically paid by The Hastings Club.

Details of the draft media policy were first aired on the website.

The website’s owner, David Harrison, a former contributor to The News, said his article about the policy attracted 900 hits in three days.

“It went through the roof. There were plenty of comments left [on the site], but I’ve nothing from the shire,” he said.

As well as nominating just three people to speak to the media on shire issues, including emergencies and emergency relief and “political matters”, the media policy describes how councillors will be asked to approve quotes attributed to them before the release of statements to the media.

First published in the Mornington News – 20 June 2017


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