SECRECY and factions are being raised as major issues in the October Mornington Peninsula Shire Council elections.
Although nominations do not close until midday Tuesday 20 September, “Melbourne Cup fields” are being predicted in at least the Watson and Red Hill wards and at least half a dozen candidates each in Seawinds and Briars.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page and an email account have been opened specifically to receive tips about the council, especially anything about “infringements to our rights to freedom of information”.
David Gill, a Balnarring resident and former councillor and shire president with the Shire of Mornington, sees some of the provisions in a new councillors’ code of conduct as being “a disgrace”.
He said the process outlined in the code could ultimately lead to a majority of councillors disciplining or banning one or more of their colleagues.
“People worried about the lack of transparency of their council should read the publicly available code of conduct on council websites and protest to councils and members of parliament if they include provisions that may unfairly limit debate,” Mr Gill said.
He is also urging anyone with concerns about secrecy at the shire to contact the Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, who has already spoken with the mayor Cr Graham Pittock, CEO Carl Cowie and governance manager Joe Spiteri as part of a state-wide investigation (“Shire part of ‘secrecy’ probe” The News 2/8/16).
“Everyone who believes in transparency [in local government] should be looking at the code of conduct,” Mr Gill, who declined to say whether he would be a candidate for council, said.
“I can see implications for long term governance. Some councillors are happy with the idea that everything should be kept to themselves and say we’ll look after you.
“We’re looking for candidates, not because I’m standing. But you can ask me in two weeks’ time if no one puts up their hands.
“Sitting councillors wait and see if they have opposition and then decide how many running partners they need.”
Mr Gill, who is playing a prominent role in opposing the shire’s plan for concrete footpaths at Somers, said some councillors and council officers “surely must be worried by the trend to deal with important community matters in committee with little or no debate in their public meetings”.
“It is not uncommon for freedom of information (FOI) legislation to need to be used to gain everyday information from our secretive councils.
“We need to fight back against infringements to our rights to freedom of information.”
Mr Gill said councils would determine some matters to be confidential just because they were sensitive or embarrassing.
He said the shire’s councillor code of conduct “has forbidden necessary communication with constituents by adding to the commonly accepted wording ‘information deemed as confidential’ the new words ‘could be reasonably considered to be of a confidential nature’. “Leaving open to interpretation this all-encompassing and confusing wording.”
“Shire councillors can now be disciplined and banned from meetings by a majority of councillors, not for unacceptable or rowdy behaviour but for keeping their community informed. Councillors may now be scared to speak out about local issues.”
Mr Gill said the code effectively muzzled councillors.
“We didn’t elect them to be boards of management, but to represent us in the level of government closest to the people.”