Too Many Questions Causing Council Concern

Filed in Just In by June 25, 2020

AT the May Council meeting former Mayor, Wayne Bedggood took Councillor Sue Abbott to task for asking too many questions at the general Council meeting, claiming other Councillors were “not comfortable” with her questions and told her to ask questions directly of others or use other forums.

The former Mayor also publicly warned Cr Abbott in the meeting, “be very careful about what you say, about this Council restricting you asking questions and the way that you do it.”

It was a warning reminiscent of a scolding the former Mayor gave to resident Daryl Dutton during his public participation at a Council meeting, “…I’m not going to say it again, if you mention the secret society, or secret anything else, please it’s not right and it’s defamatory and I’m not going to go there and I’m not going to ask again, so please don’t go there.” (Read: What Has Council Confidentially Purchased?)

Cr Sue Abbott has felt considerable pressure from within Council not to speak to the media, but has finally agreed to go on the record to speak about the pattern of behaviour she feels is restricting her ability to ask questions on behalf of constituents and is keeping too many controversial discussions behind closed doors instead of in the public domain. (Related stories: Letter: No Confidence in Council Compliance and Letter: Council Culture of Secrecy Confirmed.)

The Office of Local Government confirmed with earlier this week that “no Council in NSW should seek to gag its Councillors” and “while Councillors are required to work together in the best interests of the community, they are free to express their personal views”.

While Councillors should not undermine public confidence in the Council, they are also legally and financially responsible for all Council activities and are required to ensure Council are held accountable to the community.

Cr Abbott revealed she has been disciplined twice for speaking with, her Shire notes withheld, questions for inclusion at Council meetings submitted to the General Manager omitted and said there are too many confidential Council meetings.

Cr Sue Abbott leaving the Council chambers in October 2017, while a confidential code of conduct was discussed. Cr Fisher, Cr Collison and Cr Campbell left through a separate door.

One week before a Council meeting Councillors are required to submit questions with notice to the General Manager and put forward any motions they would like raised in the meeting, however many of Cr Abbott’s questions and motions are not included in the papers.

“In my opinion we have too many closed Council meetings and when I have tried to move a motion on this, to be far more mindful on how often we go into closed Council, my notice of motion did not make the papers and further to that a lot of my questions with notice, never make the Council papers,” said Cr Abbott.

“The General Manager has deemed questions are illegal and haven’t made the papers,” she said.

“While I am not a practicing lawyer, I do have a law degree and I don’t see how my questions could be illegal,” she said.

“I’ve looked at the government act and the particular legislation, in my view it was a fair enough motion and when I prepared my motion, I did have a practicing lawyer look at it and they also felt it was fine,” she said.

Council’s external communications policy does not preclude Councillors from speaking to the media, but draws a distinction between representing Council’s position on a matter and a Councillor expressing their own views.

However, Cr Abbott who has a Graduate Law Degree and a Masters in Journalism, said after speaking with on two occasions, she was personally reprimanded, despite adhering to the Council policy.

“I can’t speak on behalf of the Council, but I can express my views as an individual Councillor,” explained Cr Abbott.

“To date I believe I have adhered to the external communications policy whether it is you, the ABC or other media, I have notified the General Manager of interviews,” she said.  

“The media is really important, so that the public are aware of what is going on at all levels of government, because we are spending your money.

“Certain decisions may mean that other vital services have funding cut and it’s vital that the community know.

“Obviously, there may be decisions by Council that are unpopular, but it is important for the community to understand how and why Council reached the decision,” she said.

“So, if you’re involved you may think, ‘look it’s not what I would do, but I do see where they are coming from and I understand,’” said Cr Sue Abbott.

The external communications policy was due for review in October this year, but this month the Council met to review the policy early however, the new policy is not yet publicly available.

The May Council meeting was the final straw for Councillor Abbott to speak out on policies and procedures she feels are restricting Councillors from raising questions in the public domain.

Councillors are restricted to only asking questions related to the business papers for that month or questions with notice at the end of the meeting.

However, in the May meeting the former Mayor, Wayne Bedggood, said Councillor Abbott was asking too many questions in the general Council meeting.

He further said other Councillors were “not comfortable” with the number of questions Cr Abbott asked, that the questions breached the meeting code of practice and instead Cr Abbott should ask the General Manager, himself or other Councillors questions directly, or in other committee meetings.

Cr Abbott said it was important that questions were raised in the open general Council meeting for the public to hear discussion of Council business and in her role as Councillor to raise questions being asked in the community.

“I believe my role as a Councillor is to ask questions on behalf of the community, my role as a Councillor is to represent the community, because the whole population can’t fit in the Council chamber,” she said.

“Therefore, when the community wants to know something, my role is to ask the questions and to find the information.

“As a Councillor you are accountable to the community and you must answer their questions, the role is not to maintain management spin.

“I often feel anxious when I ask questions, it’s a bit like a baby turtle making a dash for the sea with seagulls overhead, but in my role as Councillor I am compelled to ask them on behalf of the community and also to ensure I am clear on the full context of what I am being asked to vote on.

“The last meeting really troubled me, whereby if I read the finance papers and there’s something in there that I am not clear on, I can’t ask and they basically said ‘you should have been at that meeting’, you can’t make every single meeting of every single sub-committee and working group,” she said.

“Basically, I should be able to ask any question on any matter related to Council business in the questions with notice and, in the business papers, any matter I am unclear on or want some clarification on and my understanding is that since the May meeting, that will no longer be the case,” said Cr Sue Abbott.

The Upper Hunter Shire Council have contributed weekly “Shire Notes” to the Scone Advocate, in which each Councillor had an opportunity to contribute an opinion piece, however Cr Abbott stopped trying to contribute when her notes were blocked.

“I had contributed a piece during the bushfires lamenting the impact it had on people, animals, property and praising the volunteer firefighters and so forth,” she said.

“It had been passed by the Acting General Manager, but was blocked by the Communications department because it needed to be more ‘upbeat’.

“I don’t think it is appropriate to be upbeat about the devastating impact of the fires.

“I was told the paper would not run it, so I contacted the editor who agreed it was something they would run, so they ran it as a letter to the editor instead,” she said.

“My Shire notes have been continuously blocked and I no longer do it, because it’s pointless,” Cr Abbott said.

Cr Abbott said she is increasingly concerned at Council’s processes which she feels is restricting transparency of Council discussions and decisions and increasingly restricting Councillors.

“I do feel I am being gagged and progressively so,” said Cr Abbott.

“Local government is truly grass roots government, it’s as close as government gets to a community and you see the community all the time, while you are doing your shopping and down the street,  people will ask questions and so you are connected; so how can we not then ask questions on their behalf at a Council meeting?

“I’m unclear, it leads me to think they don’t want to answer some questions and that troubles me,” Cr Sue Abbott said.

Councillor Abbott did not reference her treatment during meetings, but has observed consistent rude behaviour towards Cr Abbott including speaking over the top of her, swearing by other Councillors when she asks a question and verbally aggressive tirades over her entire term as Councillor. The treatment of Cr Abbott drew community concern when the public attended a Council meeting discussing the swimming pool and in another open Council meeting resident Daryl Dutton and former general manager of Council described the behaviour Cr Abbott was subjected to as, “the treatment from the Mayor to Councillor Abbott from my perspective was the worst display of chairmanship I have seen in 43 years of attending Council meetings.”  We are thankful for Cr Abbott going on the record for this story and continuing to ask questions in the public domain, which allows us to report on a range of Council issues we otherwise would not be able to access.

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