FRUSTRATION boiled over into bitterness and rowdiness at the 23 November Mornington Peninsula Shire Council meeting, with two councillors exiting the chamber before business was concluded.
Tension had been building over a series of meetings as a group of the more conservative councillors led by Antonella Celi and Anne Shaw were outvoted on topics generally dealing with development and planning.
On 23 November, with Cr Graham Pittock in charge of the first meeting in his mayoral year, the unruly behaviour began when Cr Antonella Celi tried to head off a move to change the name West Rosebud to Capel Sound.
Cr Lyn Bowden asked Cr Celi why she would “not want the community to have a discussion” on the proposal. The gallery reacted to this with “Hear hear.”
Cr Celi retorted that she was prepared to debate but not “just to be set up with a question like that”.
Her motion to refuse the name change was seconded by Cr Anne Shaw.
In the debate that followed, Cr Celi said she wondered if the proposal was “about class warfare”, where it was thought a name change for an area of social disadvantage would fix its problems.
Inquiries among Rosebud West community leaders indicated they were happy with the current name, she said.
Cr Pittock cautioned the restive gallery to remain silent. Cr Celi added: “And mind your language, too, please. I don’t appreciate being called a tosser.”
Cr Shaw pointed to the costs of a name change that failed, especially for businesses. She cited but did not identify instances of changes being rejected by residents, leading to costly re-adoption of the original names.
Cr David Garnock gave the example of West Park in his Cerberus ward having its name changed to Wallaroo, which had been a success. He knew of other successful name changes, he told the meeting.
Cr Andrew Dixon described the proposal as “postcode snobbery at its finest”, arguing there were many better ways a community could spend the $18,000 proposed for conducting the name change consultation.
Cr Tim Wood described Cr Celi’s move as a “road block” to the democratic process of consulting the public.
In closing, Cr Celi claimed that a recent community consultation workshop, “no one wanted to change the name”. This drew a strong protest from the gallery.
Cr Celi indignantly and loudly asserted her “right to debate” and Cr Pittock again rebuked the gallery before the vote went against her 3-7. Cr Bev Colomb was absent from the meeting.
Cr Pittock suggested the motion to put the issue to Rosebud residents did not need to be re-debated and Cr Lynn Bowden moved that the motion be put immediately to the vote.
“Anything to shut me up,” Cr Celi interjected. “When it’s good [for her opponents] it means that they want me to be quiet and not debate. I’ve been shut up. I’ve been censored.”
After a few uncontroversial items in the weighty agenda, vigorous debate ensued over proposals to send Cr Pittock and Cr Hugh Fraser to Paris for the impending United Nations climate change conference set down for 29 November–11 December.
Cr Wood chaired the discussion on Cr Pittock’s attendance. Mornington Peninsula Shire is one of just 10 Australian local government groups to be invited to the event in recognition of its proactive stance on climate change.
Governance manager Joe Spiteri, questioned on the absence of a food and drink budget among the estimated costs of attendance, said council would expect Cr Pittock to claim for these items on his return.
Closely and repeatedly questioned on total cost, Mr Spiteri said that if the total councillor entitlement of $16,000 for the four-year term was exceeded, the councillor would have to pay any expenditure above the entitlement cap.
Councillors are each entitled to $4000 annually for conference and seminar attendances.
Mr Spiteri also said both councillors had indicated that their commitment to climate change was such that they would, if council voted against paying for their attendance, pay their own way to Paris.
Despite opposition, the attendance in Paris of both councillors was approved. The Paris debate had taken about an hour of a crowded agenda with several substantial items still to come forward.
These forced the meeting over the 11pm deadline and into the allowed final half-hour.
Tension again flared as Cr Pittock strove to get all business finished. The vote split five-all several times, with Cr Pittock used his casting vote to guillotine items amid protests.
Thirteen minutes from the 11.30 meeting cut-off Cr Pittock appealed to councillors to expedite the final items. This plea had little effect. Finally Cr Shaw exploded as a question she wished to ask about the mayor’s acceptance speech was carried away in the rush.
“We’re just meandering all over the place, going nowhere,” Cr Pittock told the noisy chamber, adding that his actions were within council rules.
“I don’t accept that, I won’t accept that, I have a question…” an exasperated Cr Shaw said.
Cutting across her, Cr Pittock replied: “If you don’t accept it, Madam, you may leave the chamber.”
Uproar ensued, with Cr Shaw and others effectively challenging the mayor’s authority and bringing the meeting to a halt.
Finally a sort of order again prevailed and a motion that a vote be taken on the speech proceeded. It was carried among heated interjections, particularly from Cr Celi, Cr Dixon and Cr Shaw.
An item of urgent business from Cr Fraser appeared the last straw for a number of councillors. It sought approval for an urgent legal opinion on whether council should take Supreme Court action against a VCAT decision on a development in Ocean Beach Rd, Sorrento.
The meeting had become a free-for-all of protests to the chair, insults, points of order and cross-chamber abuse as the deadline approached. When order was again restored, Cr Celi asked how it could be assured that the cost of any legal action, which she said could up to $800,000, could come back to council for discussion.
Responding, Cr Fraser, apparently now convinced the matter he moved could not be decided – and would therefore lapse – before the meeting time expired, moved that the meeting be adjourned until 6pm the following day.
This caused a further hubbub, in which it became clear such a meeting could not be held. At this point councillors Shaw and Dixon – who asked rhetorically, “Can we go now?” – left the chamber, Cr Dixon addressed his colleagues as he departed: “Scotch, anyone?”
Contacted later, Cr Pittock said he was confident he faced a bracing year of lively meetings.
“With such a busy agenda, we must seek efficiencies to get through the evening’s business.”