By KIERAN FINNANE
There is some resistance to the efficiency broom being swept through council by CEO Robert Jennings and Director of Corporate Services Sabine Taylor, who both came to their positions late last year.
Example: Councillors have voted with their feet (metaphorically) on a recently introduced measure for managing conflicts of interest. It requires councillors to submit a list of meetings they have attended that could potentially represent a risk for conflict of interest.
For the month of July non-compliance in reporting was total.
In the preceding months of June and May, a majority failed to comply.
However, on the more significant restructure of council meetings, the resistance is more muted.
CEO Jennings is proposing that Standing Committee Meetings – the less formal sort that are held mid-month, with free-flowing debate – no longer be held at all.
Cr Eli Melky
Instead there would be two Ordinary Meetings a month. These are the meetings bound by tighter meeting protocol where decisions are voted on, giving them formal effect.
The two Ordinary meetings would be time-restricted, starting at 5.30pm, finishing no later than 8.30pm. This would include the time allowed for dealing with confidential business.
Mr Jennings wants to start this new regime on 14 September.
It would be accompanied by a very significantly reduced frequency for reporting by council directorates and for updates on major projects and strategy.
He proposes a twelve-week cycle for such reports, commencing on 28 September. Financial reports would still be made monthly.
It’s not hard to see how this might be more efficient – and less exhausting than the often protracted meetings to date – but might also see a significant shift in power to the directorate.
A sign of this shift being set in motion already has been seen in recent meetings when councillors have raised issues on behalf of constituents and been told crisply that the matter is operational and therefore will not be further discussed.
Constituent advocacy has been a feature of what elected members can do in all the time I have reported on council. Now Mr Jennings is telling councillors that there may be new ways of engaging with the community, which he will announce soon.
Cr Jacinta Price
On the restructure, just one councillor, Eli Melky, saw it as a possible erosion of “transparent democratic local governance”.
He assured the CEO that he didn’t want to interfere with running operations, he didn’t want to “micro-manage”, but he was concerned about the limits to “free and fluent discussion” and the “opportunity for good solid debate” represented by the restructure.
The rules of debate for Ordinary Meetings allow each councillor to speak only once. With the support of a seconder, a councillor can move to take the meeting out of “standing orders” (those debate rules), but if you are a sole dissenting voice, that is obviously not possible.
On occasion Cr Melky has been in exactly that position, but by doggedly sticking to his guns – and sometimes being exhausting, as I have reported – he has eventually won support for significant change.
Cr Melky also argued that the Standing Committees structure provides “leadership experience” for the different councillors elected to chair the committees (at present he chairs Technical; Cr Glenn Auricht, Corporate; and Deputy Mayor Jimmy Cocking, Community Development). This experience would disappear, with the Mayor, and occasionally Deputy Mayor, doing all the chairing of Ordinary Meetings.
Cr Glenn Auricht
Cr Auricht said he made “valid points” but noted that councillors also get to chair a number of advisory committees, though that’s “a little but different to chairing Standing Committees”.
DM Cocking accepted that the way council carries out its business needs reform. For instance, he could see the need to free up staff up for implementation rather than excessive reporting. But he argued for some “co-design” in the process: it would be good to workshop the restructure.
At the least the CEO’s model could be trialled until the end of the year and then reviewed, he said.
Cr Melky also wanted time for the four councillors who have at present resigned to contest the NT election, to return to the chamber and have a say on the proposals.
Cr Jacinta Price was happy with the CEO’s proposals, but suggested that meetings be shifted to Tuesdays, rather than Mondays, allowing more time for elected members to digest their meeting papers.
Mayor Jamie de Brenni, wearing a suit for this first meeting in his new role, was also supportive, noting that this meeting model has been adopted by Palmerston Council, increasing their productivity by a third.
Deputy Mayor Jimmy Cocking
Mr Jennings emphasised departmental approval of his approach and identified the source of his power to make the change: the by-law that gives the CEO the authority to set the agenda for council meetings.
The main advantages of the change would be “safety” – meaning the protection of all involved from the exhaustion of extended meetings – and being able to move through agenda items more quickly “to get things done for the community”.
He also expressed his preference, rather than going to a forum with councillors to hash out detail, for the changes as he has proposed them proceed to this month’s Ordinary Meeting.
Only if they are not backed by a majority vote would he then make them the subject of a forum to “demystify” them.
With Mayor de Brenni and Crs Price and Auricht essentially backing the proposals, that course of action looks likely to give the CEO what he wants.
In other council news, businesses have taken up council’s waiver of rates, under Covid-19 related hardship schemes, to the tune of $106,821.60 as of 30 July 2020.
Residents’ demand for waivers has been much weaker, totalling $4,175.67.
The proportion is similar for deferrals: an amount of $173,639.07 has been deferred for businesses; $5,485.76 for residents.
The cost to council of commercial concessions is offset by the NT Government’s Special Community Assistance and Local Employment (SCALE) Program, while the assistance to residents comes from council’s own $5m Covid-19 Reserve, with $1m allocated for non-commercial hardship.
There is no movement on the relocation of the Hartley Street solar lights. The officer’s report for last night’s meeting says that the NT Government is working with Technical Services “to develop
options for the relocation of the solar lights due to the CBD Revitalisation Project earmarking a shade structure to be constructed over the area. The project is estimated to commence in 12 to 18 months.”
Photo at top: CEO Robert Jennings speaking to councillors via Zoom, with Mayor Jamie de Brenni and Director Sabine Taylor in council’s conference room.