Tuesday, August 3, 2021

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HomeIssue 34Diminished role for councillors or greater efficiency?

Diminished role for councillors or greater efficiency?

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.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Why can’t “operational matters” be discussed at Ordinary Meetings if constituents and ratepayers are concerned about such matters?
    Isn’t this the best and most transparent, democratic forum to discuss such?
    And exactly who and what now defines an “operational” matter? Is there a definition of such in the Local Government Act?
    It seems the old suspicious “confidential business” may now be deemed an “operational matter”. Same beast, just different spots. How convenient.
    What’s the matter with transparency and openness in council business?
    What a joke “accountability” has become.
    At least, previously, democratically elected members were accountable to their constituents for their actions and decisions.
    And, boy, the term council “directorates” make me nervous. It sounds like I could soon be living in an undemocratic and controlled China style system!
    Do we, the ratepayers / landowners / constituents / residents, have any powers to dismiss these “directorates” if were not happy with how they perform?
    Do the “directorates” understand that it’s the constituents that pay their wages?
    And, seriously, sitting through a long meeting is now a health and safety concern!
    God Help US.

  2. In quoting Councillor Melky: “Mr Jennings is telling councillors that there may be new ways of engaging with the community, which he will announce soon.”
    Are we to understand that these announcements will be shared with the community and not just with the councillors?
    Thank you “Concerned” for your comment: “What’s the matter with transparency and openness in ‘our’ council business?”
    Should there be an efficiency broom in process why not wait to see what’s on offer from the CEO re community engagement because as it stands councillors appear to be more engaged with political party interests rather than constituent issues or concerns.
    We already have two other tiers (territory / state and federal) of governance to assist us with political matters.

  3. I am on a board of directors. A standing agenda item is conflict of interest.
    It’s better this way because people can’t “forget” to mention something.
    It works pretty well, but then our board offers accountability, something the Alice Springs Town Council will never do.
    As for operational matters, it should be left to the CEO and his people, not the councillors. They
    should be focusing on strategic matters and leave the CEO alone to do his bit.
    I believe it’s called corporate governance.

  4. @ Surprised! But what exactly are “operational” matters? It’s a very broad-brush and vague term.
    And if operational matters affect Alice Springs constituents, where do they go to have them discussed / addressed, if not Ordinary Meetings and by accountable Elected Members?
    These, in the end, are answerable to the constituents come the next council elections.
    Or will we in the future now be democratically electing directors and directorates as well?
    And @ Relieved!: What is the actual distinction between an operational and a political matter?
    As sometimes political decisions can have quite an impact on operational matters. And vice versa.

  5. The category “operational issue” readily lends itself to silencing critics.
    A ratepayer may dispute a council decision, complain to the council but get no response.
    The ratepayer may then call on councillors to take up the issue.
    They are told that the matter is operational which ends their engagement and representation.
    The term “operational” does not mean that the council is actually doing anything at all.
    It does not mean that the council will even communicate with the ratepayer.
    The only remaining course of ratepayer action is to wait several months and appeal to the NT Ombudsman.
    This is time consuming and wasteful.
    Of course operational issues should be able to be raised and discussed by councillors.
    That is the most efficient way of doing business.
    It is encouraging that there is resistance to the “efficiency broom” being swept through council.

  6. Thank you for the opportunity “Confused”.
    I will attempt to outline the distinction as I see it.
    In answering your question, the inference to operational matters in broad terms must surely relate to the business or functioning of the said organisation, including our defence forces.
    A political matter is one that will concern itself more with the status or power plays within one of those organisations and therefore much may be understated / politicised when it comes to public scrutiny of operations for the sake of party rules which become the priority.
    I believe in a meaningful and principled consultative processes and I reiterate: “Let’s see what new ways Mr Jennings has on offer to engage with the community.”
    In fact what are your thoughts on a Rate Payers Association to attract a community voice and platform?

  7. @ Confused? A fair question. Operational matters would be day to day things. For example, if a park needed a new reticulation system or which insurance company will the council use. Thing that will not adversely affect the community.
    Where there is probable impact to the community, there should certainly be a consultation process. The main issue with consultation, is that because everyone has an opinion and political pressure seems to only bow to those who make the most noise, not the most sense, things go terribly wrong.
    Having said that though, the council is renown for its lack of openness and any real consultation processes.
    Cases in point, the ugly solar lights in Hartley Street and the ongoing and long term “trial” of the police car parking in Parsons Street whilst privately owned cars are in the police compound.

  8. @ Relieved: If operational matters relate to the business or functioning of the said organisation then arguably just about everything is “operational”.
    Point in case: Eastside Court made a no standing zone, residents can’t park in front of their own residences.
    No response from CEO to multiple complaints.
    Councillor raises issue and is told this is an operational decision.
    Ratepayers complaint to NT Ombudsman.
    CEO reverses the decision and removes the yellow no standing line.
    The category of “operational” effectively blocked all communication on the issue and led to the wasteful outcome of painting the no standing lines and then removing them.
    This is not efficient.

  9. Thanks for this great example Ralph. It would appear that the ratepayers took the necessary action and you may have been one of those ratepayers. Stands to reason that a Rate Payers Association has merit. I fully concur with your sentiments when you make reference to getting no response from the CEO.
    The Local Government Act has apparently many and varied “outs” for a CEO and board members when it comes down to complaints however, the determination of a group of community members (ratepayers) is, as occurred in your case, a proven and effective way to restore what appears to have been non consultative decisions that had affected those of you who live in this community.
    Well done.
    However, I would still like to see what new ways that Mr Jennings has on offer to engage with the community.
    Hopefully a much reformed consultative process.

  10. Elected members are there to serve the community and advocate on their behalf all concerns.
    We are also required to produce a municipal plan within which the budget is set.
    We produce a strategic plan, set policy, create master plans and make laws commonly known as bylaws.
    To arrive at the final decision making, members need to discuss the issues, preferably in open and transparent meetings.
    The proposal as reported on in this article does concern me as it reduces the ability to have free and frank discussions and debate.
    As a body corporate, council decisions are made binding by way of resolution at an ordinary council meeting.
    It is only then that the CEO can act on official direction as set by council.
    At this point it becomes operational and the responsibility of the CEO.
    Elected members follow the progress from directors reports to conclusion of task.
    After serving my community for the past 10 years on council I understand the need for efficiency and to practice high level governance avoiding the urge to micro manage.
    However it is important to understand that elected members can make representation on behalf of community on all matters and decisions are made binding by way of council resolution.
    I look forward to an improved meeting structure that does not reduce the opportunity to represent my community.

  11. Discussions such as this one shed a light on the importance of community rancour in relation to council decisions made behind closed doors, in other words, “confidential business”.
    What is it about a group of people elected by the community, others employed in council to work for that same community and all funded by that community, who feel that they, and only they should be making decisions as representatives of that community in secret?
    The councillor mentions the need to discuss issues “preferably in open and transparent meetings”. Why should any of our council business be secretive when surely all that is funded at council comes from the pockets of those who helped put all who supposedly represent us on council there in the first place, be it through their taxes, rates or otherwise?
    Is this transparency, is this proper consultative processes in action?
    We respect the democratic representative roles, we do not respect the “secret squirrel” unknowns.
    Consult with the community on all matters. To use a current phrase: “We are all in this together.”
    And by the way, no such funding or expenses needed for a rate payers association and no such “confidential business” required to consult on community concerns.

  12. My dad, years ago when I mentioned I may stand for council gave some sound advice.
    “The first and foremost training a town clerk undertakes is how to control the elected members of council.”
    He was speaking from experience and after a couple of terms I knew exactly what he was talking about.
    To do your job as an elected member is one continuous fight to raise issues and to get a message across from a constituent.
    Obviously things have not changed over the last 40 years.

  13. @ Relieved: On the issue of confidential information.
    Over my time in council I have on many occasions challenged the reasoning behind placing items in confidential.
    On a few occasions I have been successful to have some matters removed back and discussed in open. The most significant achievement was to have ALL matters of finance, which had previously been automatically placed in confidential, moved to be in open in full.
    This only took six years of fighting what at times felt like a lone battle.
    These events have been well reported by Alice Springs News over many years.
    It is important to note that some items are required to be confidential such as commercial in confidence matters and where there is a need to protect against prejudicing members of the public, council or its officers.
    While the CEO is responsible to placing items in confidential, it is the Elected members who by way of council resolution can remove items from confidential and back into open.
    Control therefore rests with elected members.

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