Council applying a gag or streamlining?

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

New meeting procedure to avoid what is deemed unnecessary discussion had Councillor Eli Melky (pictured) losing his cool at last night’s committee meetings.

 

The procedure looks neutral enough but Cr Melky, whose comments are quite often verbose and pedantic, obviously feels targeted by it.

 

Councillors wanting to raise issues in general business, which takes place at the end of the meeting, are being asked to identify them at the start of the meeting and get majority support for the later discussion to go ahead.

 

Cr Melky always has general business, in addition to a lot of questions about the detail of things in the minutes and in officers’ reports. Some of this can be useful; quite a bit of it isn’t. Last night he had three items for general business, identified as revenue policy on fees and charges; grass-cutting crews; and CBD parking for small trucks.

 

When committee chair Steve Brown said that each item would need a vote, Cr Melky challenged. He didn’t think that would be so in committees. However CEO Rex Mooney confirmed that it was the case, that the meeting procedure is one proposed by the Local Government Association of the NT.

 

Mayor Damien Ryan, attending the meeting by phone, wanted to know from Cr Melky whether the first item was going to be “a long-winded discussion” or would it better come up in the budgetary process. Cr Melky thought all three items were suitable for general business.

 

From the chair Cr Brown asked for a little more detail. Cr Melky retorted that he was not comfortable with the whole voting process. Nonetheless he began to outline the grass-cutting concern.

 

Mayor Ryan wanted to know, with a hint of sarcasm, if this had come up at 5pm that day or a week ago, in which case shouldn’t Cr Melky have contacted the CEO by phone so that the directors could come to the meeting prepared?

 

Cr Melky replied that this would mean there’d be no reason to come to meetings as an elected member; he could just deal with the CEO like “Joe Citizen”. He didn’t understand what council was trying to achieve; he was getting “a little bit frustrated” with this “denial of democracy”.

 

There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between the two before Mr Mooney suggested that it was easy to settle, as there is a difference between general business and a question to the director.

 

Cr Melky accepted that grass-cutting could be a simple question but then tried to justify the other issues as general business. He was well into an intricate explanation, with minutes ticking by, when Cr Brown cut in, realising that all this was resulting in the opposite of the desired effect, lengthening rather than shortening the meeting.

 

The issues were put to the vote. Two councillors raised their hands in support of discussing revenue policy, but Cr Melky was already fuming. He found it “Incredible!” that he wasn’t getting majority support. The decibel level was going up. This provoked the normally calm Cr Jade Kudrenko who told him there was “no need to yell at us”. Cr Melky kept going: he’d be happy to take the issue to the media, he said  – that’s “where we need to address it!”. (No media apart from the Alice Springs News Online were at the meeting.)

 

Nobody supported the grass-cutting matter for general business but there was enough support for the parking issue. The Mayor, who of course could not see the show of hands, kept suggesting that the issues could be addressed in other parts of the meeting rather than be brought up separately.

 

The meeting moved on.  But Cr Melky was obviously stewing. About 10 minutes later, when the Mayor complained (as he had done repeatedly) that he couldn’t hear what was being said in the chamber, Cr Melky said he didn’t want to continue in the meeting with the Mayor attending by phone, for the second time in a row. He’d had enough of the “voice in the sky”, it was giving him a headache. And with that he left the chamber (he came back some time later).

 

The postscript to all this was that when the general business part of the meeting finally came round, there was complete confusion over whether Cr Melky had support for his issues or not. He assumed he had no support; Cr Kudrenko and Cr Kylie Bonnani thought he had support for the CBD parking issue; the minute taker confirmed this; but still it wasn’t discussed and everyone drifted away to their cup of tea.

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3 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Janet Brown
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 8:01 am

    There are those who contribute to debate and there are those who just speak because they love to hear themselves speak. And fail to make positive contribution to debates. So if the many agree that words are words with nothing to contribute then they are entitled to their voice also. I believe that is democracy at work. Zero tolerance to ill mannered minorities that intend to impact everything due to their inability to work as a team.

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  2. Jane Clark
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:57 am

    However, I must add that there are no standing orders at Committee Meetings so the vote process is moot.

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  3. Jane Clark
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:54 am

    My understanding is that the purpose of ‘other business’ is to raise urgent matters that had not come through the other processes of raising matters in Council. A councillor has the opportunity to contact the CEO with concerns at any time (particularly useful for clarifying budget and other issues).

    If a matter is to be discussed by the whole council at a formal meeting then it should be submitted in writing.

    The purpose of the vote is to ascertain the urgency and also circumvents political opportunism of springing an issue on people unawares.

    It also assists the public who are watching the meeting wondering whether their issue will be presented by a councillor later in the meeting or not.

    I was actually wondering last night whether Council meetings still extended late into the night with every person wanting to have a say whether they agreed or not. In hindsight, I benefitted greatly from what I learnt from my fellow councillors during this process, but at the time it was quite hard work to stay engaged.

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