MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire sees part of its mission as “keeping [the public] up to date with what is happening across the shire in an open and direct way”, but councillors have decided against publishing summaries of their secret discussions, or briefings.
Cr David Gill said the summaries would help the public understand what topics were being discussed before they came up for a decision on a council agenda.
“This is about transparency. It’s about inclusiveness. It’s about bringing our community with us when we’re discussing things,” Gill said.
Briefings were noted on agendas, but the details remained secret, and it could be up to six months before they came back to council for a decision.
His move for transparency at the council’s 14 November public meeting was defeated, with Crs Despi O’Connor, Lisa Dixon, Sarah Race, Antonella Celi and the mayor Steve Holland voting against, and Gill being supported by Crs Susan Bissinger, Kate Roper and Simon Brooks.
After Gill’s notice of motion was defeated, he said listening to the arguments against providing more information reminded him of the saying “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself”.
“Mushrooms. Fear of the unknown. Fear of people knowing the unknown,” he said.
People reading council agendas which listed council briefings “have got a line, they don’t know what the heck it is, but they’re got a line that we’re discussing something. In secret”.
“If you can’t put up a summary of what you’re discussing it’s definitely secret,” Gill said. “It’s just interesting how you can be a councillor representing your community, but don’t tell them. That’s how it reads, that’s how it looks. Don’t tell them what we’re discussing.”
Before the motion was defeated, Cr Despi O’Connor said summarising councillor briefings with officers “will actually create fear, because there’s unknowns. How much of it will create anxiety in our community?”
Briefing papers prepared by officers were often the start of thoughts they were pulling together.
“There’s lots of different avenues they’re looking at going down. They’re getting more information [and] they’re going to come back to us another time,” O’Connor said.
Councillors were sometimes briefed two or three times before being asked to make a decision during a public council meeting.
“The summary is not always going to be clear to the public about what the paper is about,” O’Connor said.
Cr Sarah Race: “It comes back to the unintended consequences of a little bit of information because they say, to use that expression, a little bit of information is dangerous.
“I think transparency is really important, and I think the community likes to know.
“But I think Cr O’Connor is right, a lot of what comes back to us when we make decisions around the council table is the actual information we make decisions on, not the prior ones we talk about in briefings.
“I am also wary of what this might do within [sic] the hands of our local journalists … because they seem to have a different narrative of what happens at council meetings as well.”
Cr Susan Bissinger was “totally for transparency … I think all the information given to us should be given to the community as well”.
Cr Kate Roper was also “all for transparency, anything that helps our community understand what we do and what we’re talking about”.
Cr Antonella thought “transparency’s great” but questioned why officers should have to spend “extra time” on summaries”.
“If the community’s interested, they can have a look at the agenda, they can have a look at the minutes, they can email a councillor, to find out what that briefing was all about.”