A SELECT group of councillors were given the opportunity to discuss amendments to rules under which Mornington Peninsula Shire operates at least 12 days before they became a last minute addition to the council agenda on Tuesday 24 August.
Six councillors knew about the amendments which were not revealed to their five council colleagues until well after the public online meeting had started. Although the changes had been the subject of a series of emails going back at least 11 days, they were not raised at the pre-meeting councillor briefing.
The five councillors were not informed of the amendments proposed at the meeting by Cr Sarah Race, although the emails about them between the mayor Cr Despi O’Connor and the shire’s in-house lawyer Amanda Sapolu and CEO John Baker date back to at least 12 August.
The proposed amendments were sent to Crs Race, Anthony Marsh, Kerri McCafferty, Paul Mercurio and Lisa Dixon in the early evening on 18 August, six days before the scheduled council meeting.
The five councillors left out of the email loop were David Gill, Steve Holland, Susan Bissinger, Antonella Celi and Debra Mar.
When introducing her amendments to the Governance Rules one hour into the debate on 24 August, Cr Race apologised for the lateness, saying home schooling, COVID and late nights had made it “a bit of a process for me”.
Cr Holland said last week that he was “glad this has now come to light although it’s hard to believe [what was written in the emails to the six councillors], it’s quite damning”.
“It’s disappointing that some councillors appear to have been deliberately kept in the dark and excluded from such an important part of the decision-making process,” Cr Holland said.
“The surprise amendment has empowered the bureaucracy and affected the ability of an elected councillor to represent the community. Now we find out that this was actually a calculated move, despite what has been claimed.”
Cr Gill was “shocked” to find out there had been time for the Governance Rules amendment to be discussed with all councillors but “the mayor and five other councillors had seemingly settled the wording a week before the meeting”.
“There seems to have been ample opportunity for all councillors to have been reasonably informed,” he said. “I believe it was said at the meeting that there wasn’t time for other councillors to be informed.”
During the 24 August meeting Cr Race said she was ”committed to the process of good governance” and added “we’re all in the same storm, different boats” (“No easy pass for council rules” The News 30/8/21).
The five councillors who had not been told about the amendments reacted angrily, with Cr Bissinger describing them as “as last minute ambush”.
Cr Celi was “glad this meeting is being live streamed so the community can see how the council operates”.
Cr Mar, not knowing the amendments had been vetted by Ms Sapolu, Mr Baker and six other councillors, believed they had not been thought through properly.
But Cr Mercurio, one of the six councillors included in the string of pre-meeting emails, said the changes “were not substantial”.
Cr Marsh, also one of the emailed six, said the amendments “are not something sprung on us, they’re not new”.
Former councillor Hugh Fraser has since questioned the legality of the new Governance Rules (“Council denies rules ‘unlawful’” The News 27/9/21). The argument over the legality of the new rules revolves around whether the changes were significant or “one or two minor changes”, as described by legal and governance manager Ms Sapolu.
Mr Fraser, a barrister, says the amendments – which include increasing the powers of the shire’s CEO and restrictions on notices of motion – were so significant that they should have been exhibited for public comment.
Cr O’Connor, who had email discussions about the proposed amendments with Ms Sapolu and CEO John Baker days before the 24 August meeting, saw them as being “not significant”.
In a 29 June email to Craig Thomson, of Wildlife Ecosystems Retention & Restoration, about the use of notices of motion Cr Race stated: “I do not make policy by thought bubble, I do not expect any of my councillor colleagues to either, we should be as informed as we possibly can.”