Council ‘isolating itself from the people’ with meeting change

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COUNCIL: Changing council’s monthly meeting time to 2pm was a threat to democracy and smacked of elitism, according to long-time former mayor Nic Carmody and others in the community.

Yass Valley Council is trialling a change in meeting times, from 4.30pm to 1.30pm (open forum) with the view to officially starting the meeting at 2pm instead of the traditional 5pm.

Mayor Rowena Abbey said there was never going to be a time to suit everybody, but that the shift to an earlier time slot would be trialled for three months in a bid to prevent meetings running late into the evening.

“We are often there at 9 or 9.30pm at night and it’s very late for babies to be out and councillors get tired. It would be good to have more time earlier in the day to discuss the important issues that effect people in the Yass Valley,” Mayor Rowena Abbey told Scoop.

“We will never be able to suit everyone.”

Councillor Garry Ware, who initiated the proposal, said councillors were often too tired when discussing important financial issues towards the end of the meeting.

“We get in there and have all the speeches by the people [in open forum] and then we spend hours talking about $100 and $200 matters… then we go into contracts, which are worth millions and millions of dollars, and spend five minutes on them because we are too tired and rushing to get out of the place because by then it’s 8.30pm or 9pm at night,” he said.

“And I didn’t like the idea of [councillor] Jasmin Jones having a baby there at 9pm in winter time in the freezing cold, it’s dreadful.”

But Councillor Jones herself voted against the change, saying more than 49 per cent of the local workforce work outside of the LGA “so many working parents for example would be unable to attend open forum if it began at 1:30pm. I have also seen young Murrumbateman residents who are students at Canberra schools present to open forum which simply would not be possible in the middle of the day.”

She was disappointed her baby was being used as “a political pawn”.

“I respectfully called the mayor to account during the last council meeting for using my name and personal circumstances in this debate so I am disappointed to again see comments in the media by my colleagues using a young child as a political pawn in what many see as a sad attack on residents rights to attend and present their view to council at a time convenient to most.

“This council actively chose to reduce the carer’s allowance by a third as soon as I was elected and it has been a hard battle to claw that back over the last three years. I did so because I want diversity on council in the future and after eight years of that allowance staying the same it was a shameful and pointed act to cut it.”

Former councillors and local businessmen Mr Carmody and Allan McGrath, resident Touie Smith Senior, and a handful of others who know about the change have also voiced their concerns.

“Not all people are as high up the corporate ladder as yourselves [Council’s directors], getting off work to attend a council meeting is not easy for most,” Mr Carmody said.

“Likewise, potential councillors who are not self-employed or retired would have difficulty attending meetings at 2pm. I gather… staff are not complaining because they get to go home much earlier.”

Proponents argue members of the public who attend council meetings are most likely there for the 4.30pm open forum and would traditionally require time off work anyway.

Council’s resolution did not include reasons for the proposed changes but suggested the earlier time slot was more suitable for mothers with young children.

“The first priority should be for meeting times to suit elected representatives, otherwise the ability to perform elected responsibilities may be jeopardised,” it says.

“For the community, even with open forums commencing at 4.30pm and council meetings at 5pm, leave arrangements generally need to be organised beforehand to attend.

“For most in the community their attendance at a meeting relates to a matter they have a direct interest in and may wish to take the opportunity to address council. In these circumstances prior arrangements can be made to ensure attendance (e.g. leave, adjustment of work hours).

“As there is no significant community objection to the revised times it is recommended the exhibited hours be adopted.”

Two submissions, one opposing the change, were written to council. The submitters’ names were excluded from the report and not provided to Scoop upon request.

“Being a keen community minded citizen of Yass I take an interest in why council does things and I consider it an obligation to provide comment as democracy only works if people get involved,” one submission from Touie Smith Senior states.

He was neither for nor against it, but he wanted to know the reasons behind it.

“I see no mention in the press, no council propaganda, no mayoral message and no mention in any report from council as to why a change is being considered.

“Once again I could see it is easy to form an opinion of deception and stealth if all we in the community see [is] council fiddling with things that aren’t broken.”

He told Scoop the onus was on council to provide reasons for the change before making the decision.

“They’ve never offered any reasons, I’m not saying it’s a good or bad idea, but it seems fairly logical to actually say why they are doing it – before it happens.”

Mrs Abbey said day time meetings were successful in several other NSW council areas, including Cowra, Parkes, Bourke and Upper Lachlan.

“But some people don’t like change all together,” she said.

Former councillor Allan McGrath opposed the move, saying, “I notice all the meetings to be held in various locations around the Yass Valley to explain the Special Rate Variation are scheduled to start at 6.30pm, a time slot that is convenient for the majority of people; just as 2pm is inconvenient for the majority of ratepayers and residents.

“Council does seem to be isolating itself more and more from the people it is supposed to represent.”

Mr Carmody agreed,”I’ve been involved in local government for 30 years and I don’t think I would’ve been able to had this been around back then.”

“If you’re school teacher or a nurse, what are your chances of getting in there at 2pm?”

Mrs Abbey said if if the trial proved unsuccessful, meetings times would be revisited.

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