Democracy demands open doors – Council shuts out residents

At the council meeting on February 12, residents waited in the foyer and outside while the council meeting went into confidential.

Susanna Freymark

Three Kyogle councillors had messages and calls from a combined 24 people who had been denied the chance to speak at the council meeting

Public access today, Monday, February 12 was not so public with only one resident getting up to speak for five minutes about the size of the red rubbish bins.

Catherine Rogers said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to the council about waste.

Others were not so fortunate. Those who wanted to have a say about the sacking of Graham Kennett as GM and how the council employed new GM, Brett Kelly only to have him resign seven weeks into the job, did not get the opportunity.

Mr Kelly was at the council meeting but said little.

The public gallery seats, all 18 of them were full, with the rest of the people, about 12 of them spilling into the foyer.

Usually, the council meeting has about four people in the public gallery – today it was 30.

Councillors Danielle Mulholland and Hayden Doolan attended the meeting through Zoom.

First up – Ms Mulholland asked:

“Why were people denied public access?”

Mr Kelly gave a terse reply – “I’ll take that on notice.”

This meant he didn’t have to answer the question straight away and given he finishes up on February 23, he is unlikely to answer the question at all.

Councillor Janet Wilson wasn’t going to let the query stop at that.

“Residents have tried to participate and have been refused access,” she said.

“They are extremely unhappy about this. This is about censorship.”

Ms Wilson said she had nine messages from people denied public access.

“It’s not good enough,” she said.

The push to close the doors came from Mayor Kylie Webster and Councillor Maggie May. They wanted the responses to a list of questions from Ms Wilson about the process used to employ Mr Kelly to be done privately.

Ms Webster’s mayoral minute about employing Chris White as interim GM and forming a sub-group to appoint a new GM was also part of going private.

Part of the process of going into confidentiality means no more than two people are allowed to speak about why the council shouldn’t close the doors.

Former mayor Ross Brown was keen. He has been leading a campaign opposing the sacking of Graham Kennett.

He said only two of the items related directly to personnel and only those should be discussed confidentially. The other items should be heard by the public.

“Council is using confidential to screen discussions from the community.”

This is a breach of meeting practice and code of conduct, he said.

Then Big Rob, a Lismore councillor, who said he was not at the meeting as a councillor stood up and agreed with Mr Brown that most of the items on the proposed confidential section were procedural and should not be discussed privately.

“This is against everything we stand for as a local government body,” he said.

Big Rob had applied for public access.

“I was refused access from the interim GM,” he said.

Lismore Council has gone through six GMs in less than five years, he said.

“Doing it in confidential – everyone will gossip – do it publicly.”

The crowd clapped at his words.

Several times Ms May urged Ms Webster to “move into confidential”.

It was voted on and councillors James Murray, Tom Cooper, Ms Webster, Ms May and Rob Cullen voted to take the meeting into confidential.

The public had to leave council chambers and sit in the foyer for more than half an hour while the GM matters were discussed.

Some left, others waited to be allowed back into the chambers.

IndyNR.com sent an email to the mayor and the GM to ask why access was denied to so many people. We have not heard back.

The tussle for recognition continued once the public returned to the meeting.

Ms Wilson listed the public petition signed by 1500 people as an agenda item and asked the council to acknowledge receiving it.

The petition called for the council to be dismissed.

“Council would be wise to take on the anger and disappointment of the community at this stage,” Ms Wilson said.

Ms May wanted the petition to be received and noted but not acknowledged.

“It’s my view council staff should not waste time on this petition,” she said.

“So, no action is required?” Ms Webster said.

Ms Mulholland said the council should acknowledge the petition.

“It is a significant number of the population trying to engage with council that they have an issue. Rather than just receive and note – acknowledge.”

This was not done as councillors voted to receive and note the petition only.

Throughout the meeting, there were jeers and boos from the public.

At one point when the crowd became boisterous, Ms Webster asked for them to be more professional. This caused more jeers.

The meeting went on for two and a half hours and other matters were discussed including that there was funding, finally, to fix Montgomerys Bridge.

The questions Ms Wilson wanted answered that were discussed behind closed doors can be viewed here.

All Kyogle Council stories are here in one place.

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