THE rift between some Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors shows no sign of abating, with disagreements spilling out of the council chamber and onto social media.
In the wake of last Tuesday’s (24 August) online council meeting Cr Steve Holland went on Facebook saying that “council is controlled by an exclusionary voting block that refuses to consider important community issues on their merits”.
“Caucusing and a complete disregard for public sentiment has become the norm.”
He later told The News that it was “disappointing that such a toxic culture has emerged”.
Cr Holland said councillors often attacked other councillors’ characters rather than “engaging in substantive and respectful discussion”.
“The standard of behaviour in the chamber is bad enough, you can imagine what it’s like behind closed doors,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there are several councillors I will no longer engage with one-to-one or without a witness due to their continued behaviour.
“Denigrating and barbed remarks are the norm. On one occasion I recall being told that I was a white male and needed to learn my place.”
It is understood that a record is being kept of shire councillors’ social media posts and actions within the chamber.
A video screen grab is being circulated that shows one councillor – whose mic is turned off – allegedly mouthing an expletive at another councillor.
Frankston Council last week suspended Cr Steven Hughes for one month following allegations of “multiple acts of misconduct … in his social media posts”.
In raising the issue of the council being “toxic”, Cr Holland was echoing sentiments also aired during the council meeting but relating to the former council.
Debate over the Governance Rules under which council operates revealed that at least one councillor had been disillusioned from the outset.
At last Tuesday’s meeting Cr Anthony Marsh said he had been “absolutely shocked by the toxic culture and anti-officer conspiracy that I walked into” after being elected.
Cr Celi, a councillor since 2010, immediately labelled his comments defamatory and offensive to the council group and demanded he apologise.
Cr Marsh said his comments were made through observation and were his opinion and then sought “clarity” over which part of his comments Cr Celi wanted an apology for or withdrawn.
Cr Celi: “His accusation that this council is toxic.”
Cr Marsh: “I withdraw the comment but will not apologise for my observation and opinion.”
Pressed by the mayor Cr Despi O’Connor to apologise, Cr Marsh said he would apologise “that my opinion does not reflect someone else’s opinion … and I withdraw the statement”.
However, online sparring between Cr Holland and Cr Marsh is not new, with Cr Marsh taking to Facebook claiming Cr Holland (a member of the Liberal Party) pushed a political party line rather than council’s.
He said Cr Holland “has a reputation for being unwilling or unable to engage in genuine debate online (posts often deleted and accounts blocked, including several Councillors)”.
“If you try to hold him to account for his Facebook posts in the council chamber, he calls a point of order demanding that any such reference is “improper and irreverent.”
Cr David Gill, a shire councillor for 10 years (plus 10 years with the former Shire of Mornington), said councillors in the previous term (2016-20) “did not have a toxic culture”.
“[They] voted on the merits of each motion and there was no voting bloc, ensuring motions were defeated or carried with proper consideration,” he said. “There was full and robust debate and sometimes heated moments, but there remained overall respect for differing opinions.
“I do not wish to comment on the present term of council which has nine new councillors.”