KEEPING things quiet might have been the subject of the debate, but South Gippsland Shire Council chambers were anything but last Wednesday as Councillors debated the merits of making their discussions confidential.
At issue was whether Council should make confidential the discussions of the Planning Committee at its meeting last November and the discussions of Council on the Draft Budget 2016/17 in closed sessions last December.
The motion specifically excluded keeping the Draft Budget itself confidential. However, this point appeared to be lost on the four councillors who argued angrily against the motion, some claiming Council was being undemocratic.
The Draft Budget will still be released for community consultation, but Councillors will have to keep their discussions leading up to the preparation of the document under wraps. If they leak details in letters to the press or any other public forum they will be liable for a substantial fine.
Cr Don Hill, the scribe behind more than one letter to the press in recent months, was almost apoplectic with fury, fuming that the “whole process is deplorable” and “the whole thing smacks of a gagging”. He said he had a letter from a resident “objecting to the Draft Budget being treated as confidential”. (The Mirror received a copy of this letter, and the author appears to be under the misapprehension that the motion renders the Draft Budget confidential.)
Cr Hill was not persuaded by Cr Mohya Davies’ argument that “this is about best practice and good government…We need to keep some things confidential…It allows councillors to have a frank discussion…There will be lots of opportunity for the community to have input after the Draft Budget is adopted.”
Cr James Fawcett expanded on these points. He said: “Our Budget discussions should be confidential. What the community is interested in is the result we arrive at, not the tittle tattle about what was said in Budget discussions…We want to avoid continual discussion about what was said and not said about the Budget…We need to make clear what is confidential and what is not…We don’t need a beat-up on transparency.”
This last barb was directed at Cr Andrew McEwen, who strongly backed Cr Hill and was just as vehement in his opposition to the motion under debate. “The shire has a choice between two cultures – transparency or the power bloc that opposes transparency,” he declared. He continued with accusations that democracy was being stifled and “this is an act of gagging democracy”, insisting “we need the council to stop operating behind closed doors”.
Cr McEwen’s suggestion that there exists a power bloc in Council was too much for Councillors Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks, Bob Newton and Lorraine Brunt, who said they were offended by the idea. They rose in turn to insist that they made their own decisions and nobody could claim there was a specific voting pattern in Council. Crs Hutchinson-Brooks and Brunt added that in adopting the motion they were following legal advice as to the appropriate limits of confidentiality.
Cr Fawcett noted drily, “If seven people make a sensible decision, that doesn’t make a bloc. If two or three people make a decision, that doesn’t make them right – and it doesn’t make a bloc.”
Crs Kieran Kennedy and Jeanette Harding claimed there was no need for the motion, which effectively strengthens the confidentiality requirements for Council. They said that Councillors are already obliged to ensure confidentiality. They supported Crs Hill and McEwen and voted against the motion, which was ultimately adopted on the votes of Crs Hutchinson-Brooks, Fawcett, Davies, Brunt and Newton.