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HomeIssue 4Town Council’s lack of transparency a critical issue in this election year

Town Council’s lack of transparency a critical issue in this election year

By KIERAN FINNANE

The first Councillor Marli Banks (pictured) knew of the Town Council’s proposed CBD patrol involving Traditional Owners was an agenda item in the confidential section of the January 28 Ordinary Meeting.

The idea has long roots, going back to July 2017, when senior Arrernte men publicly declared that they wanted to do something about young people causing trouble on the streets in town.

Catherine Satour was elected to council in the August and one of her first moves was to invite the men to a council meeting, supporting them in their quest to formalise a relationship with council to help deal with these complex social issues.

The reception at that meeting was lukewarm at best – “What is it you want us to do?” asked Mayor Damien Ryan, after Philip Alice had made his clear and heartfelt case for collaboration. Cr Satour’s motion to take the process further was watered down to “having discussions”. Yet, when asked about progress six weeks later, Mayor Ryan was content to report that he was still waiting for an answer to his original question.

The initiative then seemed to get lost in the disastrous Code of Conduct saga until it popped up on the confidential agenda at the end of January – three years later – as a final report from council officers, says Cr Banks.

The Elected Members supported officers’ recommendations to allocate $200,000 to develop the patrol over 16 weeks and to put it into practice for a trial period of 12 weeks. They also voted to bring the matter out of confidential.

Mayor Ryan has since given the patrol his stamp of approval in the pages of Darwin’s NT News, without a release being made to all media.

Senior Arrernte men outside the Civic Centre in July 2017, from left: Matthew Palmer, Phillip Alice, Jonathan Conway, Shane Lindner. 

Cr Banks hopes the project bears fruit but is critical of the lack of a clear process involving informed councillor debate in an open council meeting, in front of the media and interested public.

This is increasingly the way council business is being dealt with, she says, with CEO Robert Jennings drawing a hard line between what he sees as operational and policy matters, and moving a lot of leftover business from Ordinary meetings into behind-closed-doors meetings.

At the 9 February Ordinary Meeting Cr Banks tried to push back at this trend, without breaching confidentiality, by reminding Elected Members of an existing resolution of council that should be setting direction on the compulsory acquisition of Anzac Oval.

“This triggered further meetings behind closed doors,” she says.

On 9 February she also requested a review of the way consultation was conducted over the renaming of Willshire Street, in clear contradiction with council’s resolution on the matter. 

The change to council meeting structure and practice is ostensibly about productivity, efficiency and workplace health and safety (no more protracted debates till midnight) but it is having the effect in many instances of reducing councillors’ roles to little more than rubber stamping, says Cr Banks.

The system privileges one Elected Member and that is the Mayor, who is salaried to work in his role full time. He and the CEO meet with a broad spectrum of organisations and individuals across the community and across issues, but other councillors are not given the full picture.

“Information is drip fed to Elected Members or not at all,” says Cr Banks.

An example of the latter was a briefing the CEO gave at a forum (not open to the public and not minuted) about the progress of CARGO, an umbrella group led by council and the Chamber of Commerce formulating new projects supporting the future direction of Alice Springs – not insignificant.

Cr Banks was unable to attend the forum due to her family commitments – she is the mother of three young children – and no effort had been made to bring her into the picture.

When the matter came up for discussion at the January 28 Ordinary Meeting she was at a loss to know what was being discussed and made her point forcefully on that occasion – that the Ordinary Meetings are where council business should be discussed and directions set as a result of resolution by Elected Members.

Business should not be conducted behind closed doors unless it concerns matters stipulated by the Local Government Act as requiring confidentiality, she says.

“This is all about transparency and the public interest,” she says. “The direction council is taking is not good for democracy and this being an election year is a critical time for thinking about that.”

Other business not dealt with on January 28 got tacked onto a Development Committee Meeting, scheduled for February 1 at 7am. For Cr Banks this time slot is generally difficult, when she is busy getting her older daughters off to school. As February 1 was the first day back after the summer break for their school, this was even more the case. She gave her apology but missed discussing and voting on a big agenda item at this meeting (the Development Committee, of which all councillors are members, can make formal council resolutions).

A further meeting dealing with leftover business was scheduled for the following Friday, again at 7am.

“I don’t believe meetings are convened to suit all Elected Members,” says Cr Banks. “There are lots of mothers in our community. It’s important for council that I bring to it the voice of a mother, as well as of a woman and a business owner.”

If other mothers of young children see that the system makes it hard to carry out their councillor duties effectively, they may not run for office. This could lead to an homogenised council and “then we won’t get outcomes that reflect the interests of the whole community.”

Cr Banks says raising her concerns within council has gone nowhere, which is why she feels compelled to bring them to public attention. As for the impact it may have on her work with the CEO, officers, the Mayor and other Elected Members she says, “I couldn’t be more excluded than I am already.”

The Alice Springs News is seeking comment from CEO Robert Jennings and Mayor Damien Ryan on the issues raised by Cr Banks.

Photos, at top: Marli Banks at home. She is in front of a painting showing duck migration by Susan Abbott, her mother-in-law. Below, by Lisa Hatzimihail Photography: Cr Banks with her partner Leo Abbott and children, from left, Eliza, Maringka and Scarlett.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Why is it that councillors start their meetings at 7am?
    7 am is a fair time for those employees who have outside jobs, but for elected councillors to have 7am meetings is madness. What’s the point? Meetings should start like at 9am and that way even the public can attend them where appropriate.

  2. Incidentally, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Alice Springs Town Council.
    Is there really anything much to celebrate?
    Not just at local government level but also NT self-government, too.
    Seems we were all sold pigs in a poke all those years ago.

  3. No doubt some sort of CLP setup ahead. Mr Jennings seems to doing his best, but a handful of old hangers on keep rocking the boat.
    The Todd Mall entrance, contractors dug a hole to put the sign in, Alice Springs Town Council staff weeks later filled it in. Budget gets expanded but all in confidential.

  4. @ Alex: Well I know what I will do at the next election and I won’t get fined this time.
    With regard to transparency, I’d like to see the Alice Springs Town Council get audited for compliance, by a REAL auditor and the results published to their employers, us the residents.

  5. @ watchn. Mr Jennings doing his best?
    He is Mayor Ryan’s puppy faithfully carrying out his master’s rude attempt to silence debate and criticism.
    Just about everything contentious is operational and cannot be discussed with ratepayers. Actually, can’t even be discussed with our elected representatives.
    Under Ryan our Council has failed its mandate to be open, transparent and accountable.

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