Who's calling the shots? Councillors question staff's decision-making role

CLOSED DOORS: Councillor Glenn Taylor says too many council matters are discussed in confidential briefings. Photo: STEVE GOSCH  0710sgcouncil3

CLOSED DOORS: Councillor Glenn Taylor says too many council matters are discussed in confidential briefings. Photo: STEVE GOSCH 0710sgcouncil3

ORANGE councillors have questioned the council’s public accountability, due to a blurring of decision-making responsibility between councillors and staff and debates on issues away from the public eye.

Councillor Glenn Taylor said he had always maintained a positive relationship with staff, but believed there were transparency issues.

“There seems to be a trend of staff making decisions. Councillors are informed after the decision is made and the council is asked to ratify it,” he said.

“[The old hospital site] is a classic example. All we’re told is the council’s in negotiations, but I’ve got no idea what they’re proposing.

“If we, as elected councillors, have difficulty accessing staff and getting information, what does the general public experience?”

The issue erupted on Wednesday when councillor Chris Gryllis wrote to the Central Western Daily after a story featured quotes from council staff saying there was no plan to mount CCTV cameras at Orange cemetery to combat grave sabotage. 

“Orange City Council employs qualified people to give us the right advice, but no staff has any right to pre-empt council’s outcomes,” Cr Gryllis said.

Councillor Neil Jones said the issue had been raised on a number of occasions.

“There are some difficulties emerging between what council staff consider as operational decisions versus policy and strategic decisions,” he said.

“There are some decisions that have a broad impact that don’t come to council.” 

Cr Taylor said confidential briefings used to be held for major matters only, but they were now held weekly.

“There’s a lot of things going into committee and put behind closed doors,” he said.

“It should be about fruitful and honest debate, not sanitised the way is now.” 

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Councillor Jeff Whitton said there was a growing concern that decisions were being made in the briefings.

“These should be made in a proper council forum, that is a legislated council meeting,” he said.

Councillor Neil Jones viewed the briefings as a “great aspect” of the process, but agreed some items should be moved to a public forum.

“Councillors were calling for more information and more reports when we have a closed meeting so we are better prepared for discussion and whether it should be opened or closed,” he said. 

Councillor Kevin Duffy believed councillors were not always adequately informed and taking too many issues into confidential briefings gave the impression the council was “covering things up”, and concerns should be raised with the general manager. 

Council spokesman Nick Redmond said no formal decisions were made in briefings, which were intended to update councillors and involve them more in the process, and all formal resolutions were made public.

“Concerns were raised at the briefing on Tuesday night and council has agreed to undertake a review of the briefings, which will occur in the near future,” he said.

“Council previously resolved to undertake briefing sessions and they and the matter of confidentiality are contained within the code of meeting practice.”

Mr Redmond said, given the number of issues the council dealt with on a day-to-day basis, there would be some blurring of the lines between operational and policy issues at times.

He said resolutions allowed staff to undertake specific and broad-ranging activities.

“In hindsight, given the sensitivity of issues associated with the cemetery, this issue should have been discussed with council as it relates to broader issues of security and strong community interest,” he said.

“In general, staff and councillors work together very effectively on a wide range of issues.” 

He said the old hospital site had been the subject of both briefing sessions and formal council meetings.

danielle.cetinski@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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