By Hugh Fraser*
MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire CEO John Baker has been quick to propose to the new council – with eight new councillors out of 11 – radical changes to meeting procedures that substantially enhance a CEO’s powers while reducing council’s ability to regulate its own procedure.
Touted as “best practice”, these management-proposed rules are not.
Council needs to be zealous in guarding the representative democratic rights of the community to our third tier of (local) government as transparent, community engaged and able to extract accountability from management.
As recently as 2018, councillors revised their meeting procedure rules. Over the course of several workshops, councillors carefully worked through the rules with management and legal advice.
A satisfactory set of rules – indeed described as “model” rules by council’s legal adviser – was approved and soundly operates today.
Two revised rules provide for the continuation of limiting a CEO’s powers to reject a councillor’s notice of motion, and a three-day period of notice was extended to five days. This enabled a substantive management response before the meeting.
An unlawful or unfair rejection of a councillor’s notice of motion by a CEO can be remedied as a matter of “urgent business” at a later meeting.
Further, if a notice of motion is rejected by a CEO, a councillor can revise it with management assistance and resubmit it.
A notice of motion to revoke a council resolution previously made requires but one signature. This right is sparingly used in this council and usually only exercised, as it was recently, where the factual or information basis on which it was made was inadequate or unsound.
Further, a CEO has no power to directly address councillors during debate but may do so before debate starts. Once a debate is under way, the matter is solely in the hands of elected councillors.
However, the proposed rules would expand a CEO’s power to reject notices of motion, require 10, not five, business days’ notice, and bind council with a CEO’s advice as to what constitutes “urgent business”.
A notice of motion to revoke an adopted resolution would require the signatures of three councillors, including one of a councillor who supported the earlier resolution.
I don’t think this is best practice. It is a “one-off” rule copied by the shire’s management from Frankston Council’s rules. At Frankston, it was adopted to remedy a specific dysfunctional use of meetings procedure, which the peninsula does not share.
More importantly, a CEO, or his delegate, would be given an unprecedented power to address the meeting to correct a “factual” error during councillors’ debate.
Such a power invites a CEO, or his delegate, to intervene in the debate as a notional 12th councillor. This is anathema.
The community and experienced councillors readily understand the difficulties this will cause and rightly reject these proposed meeting procedure rules as being undemocratic.
*Hugh Fraser is a Mornington Peninsula Shire councillor for Nepean Ward.