COUNCILLORS need to make vast improvements in their meeting preparation, be more direct with their questions, and present, clear, concise motions, if they want to be taken seriously by the community.
For the best part of seven years, give or take some time off, I’ve sat in the gallery once a month for the ordinary Adelaide Plains Council meeting.
I’ve witnessed a change of name, seen the CEO change three times in as many years, watched the number of wards shrink from four to three, and with it the number of councillors in the chamber. There’s a lot you can learn about your local council, councillors, and the services provided to ratepayers by sitting in the gallery.
I take my hat off to those who put themselves out there as councillors, it’s a tough gig with constant pressure, personal attacks and expectations.
Here’s a few things I’ve learnt – remember this is my view, a generalisation, not aimed at any one individual or meant to tarnish everyone with the same brush, and I don’t proclaim to be able to do things better.
• For the most part, council meetings are bogged down in procedure and protocol, which while important, is tedious at times. While there is definitely a lighter feel, a more collaborative, constructive and ‘let’s get on with it’ attitude in the chamber since the 2018 elections, this wasn’t always the case.
You only had to look at the number of questions on notice, motions without notice, point of order references and code of conduct reports to see the chamber was disconnected.
• Some councillors were, and still are, ill-prepared for meetings. They haven’t read their agenda fully or ask questions that could be answered by reading the agenda attachments before the meeting. The preparation of councillors is paramount.
It’s not a good look when councillors arrive unprepared asking questions about motions they should generally already be aware of.
With agendas now regularly topping the 300-400 page mark, it is a ridiculous amount of reading, but we, as ratepayers, expect you to read it – so you can make informed decisions on our behalf based on the information provided to you.
• Some councillors make statements and tell stories, others don’t ask a question without a five-minute preamble, and there are constant point of order interruptions. Question time is only for questions, not story time. Yes protocol and procedure are important, but from my seat in the gallery, it’s too time consuming.
• In the past, questions on notice were many and took up too much time. Perhaps all councillors need to have an annual refresher on meeting procedure and protocol, not just those who are inducted after new elections?
• At times it seems meetings still don’t address issues properly; motions need to be definite, direct and clear. Do not assume things in the motion.
• If councillors have their own personal political agendas they’re in the wrong job. Ratepayers want their councillors to listen and to be proactive in seeking knowledge and understanding before the ordinary council meeting.
Any decision made should be based on what’s best for the community as a whole, not a point-scoring episode where the intent is focused on one councillor’s own patch. All councillors are there because they believe they can make a difference and they want to contribute to the community in a meaningful way.
It has been refreshing to see councillors in more recent months set aside personal differences and share a laugh, even if they don’t agree on the issue at hand.
As a ratepayer, I appreciate council still offers an open forum for residents to air their views, and can see it is working hard to improve communication and openness with the community, as can be seen by its recent introduction of community engagement forums across the district.
But in light of recent inappropriate comments made in the chamber, perhaps council could consider taping the meetings for the public to access like they do in Wakefield?
This way, meeting conduct could not only be used as a training resource, but any bad behaviour or unprofessional comments, whether made with reckless intent or not, can be scrutinised after the meeting, and any reprimands made if necessary.
An inappropriate comment at the last meeting, which was construed by some as having a threatening tone, is an example.
So while councillors and council staff go along to regular meetings, discussing issues concerning our wards, perhaps every now and then, we could all go along to a meeting, be ‘informed’ and not left in the dark!