Council must scrap move that shut down free speech

ONCE upon a time, Gympie Council’s general business item allowed councillors to openly talk about issues outside its jurisdiction, like the Traveston Dam or the highway route, at meetings.

In 2016 this process was axed unanimously by a council in which two-thirds of its members were sitting at their first ever meeting.

It was replaced by a system in which motions must be made seven days in advance and vetted by the CEO.

Now The Gympie Times is campaigning for general business to be reinstated. And this is not the first attempt to restore it.

The controversial Traveston Dam was one but one item councillors addressed in general business at meetings.
The controversial Traveston Dam was one but one item councillors addressed in general business at meetings.

Five months after the change, then-Division 8 councillor James Cochrane moved to return it, saying he initially supported the choice with “some unease” as an inexperienced councillor. His motion lost by a 5-4 vote with support from Glen Hartwig, Dan Stewart and Hilary Smerdon.

In the report tabled at the April 2016 meeting, governance officer Brian Hayes said “a significant number” of Queensland councils had removed it.

Under the new system items must be submitted to CEO Bernard Smith seven days before meetings to be vetted.
Under the new system items must be submitted to CEO Bernard Smith seven days before meetings to be vetted.

He said the “without notice” nature gave little chance for staff to give information, and made it hard for councillors to consider things like conflicts of interest.

Council CEO Bernard Smith said any reintroduction of general business would be a matter for the next council. But it was sometimes used as a forum for “political point scoring and as a form of theatre”.

“It would be important that should some form of general business be introduced, guidelines would need to be placed to protect staff, councillors, and to ensure matters raised are appropriate and relevant to the role of council,” he said.

General business has not been on the agenda throughout the term served by Hilary Smerdon, Dan Stewart, Glen Hartwig, Bob Leitch, Mick Curran, Bob Fredman, Mal Gear, Daryl Dodt and Mark McDonald.
General business has not been on the agenda throughout the term served by Hilary Smerdon, Dan Stewart, Glen Hartwig, Bob Leitch, Mick Curran, Bob Fredman, Mal Gear, Daryl Dodt and Mark McDonald.

A Department of Local Government spokesman said general business in meetings “is not best practice, and (the DLGRMA) has been conveying this message to councils for several years.

“In most circumstances, it is considered best practice that agenda items be accompanied by a report or background information to ensure that informed and transparent decisions can be made … This also ensures members of the public are better aware of issues to be discussed prior to a local government meeting.”

Time for public questions?

IS IT time to borrow an idea from our southern neighbours in the name of open governance?

Although Noosa Shire Council has no general business at its meetings, it opens the floor to questions from the public.

Bringing this to Gympie is a choice for the next Gympie Regional Council to make, CEO Bernard Smith said, noting “Noosa Council has a comprehensive guideline in place to ensure questions are appropriate and advised of in advance”.

Under these 16 guidelines, a total of 15 minutes is opened up to questioners who must be Noosa Shire ratepayers.

Noosa Shire Council has opened the floor to questions from the public.
Noosa Shire Council has opened the floor to questions from the public.

It is not to be used as a replacement for the complaint process, a forum for debate or making derogatory remarks, and each person is allowed to ask two questions.

All questions must be submitted in writing three days before the meeting.

Questions unable to be answered on the day will be answered in writing before the next meeting. No debate or discussion is allowed on any question or answer.