14 NOV, 6PM. CLASS OF 2016, BE SEATED

Welcome to our newbies, politely applauded by the gallery as they file into the Besgrove St council chamber. It is just gone 6pm on 14 November 2016 and council is reconvening. Among the 11 councillors, three are re-elected and there is another familiar face – Frank Martin, formerly of Red Hill ward now down the slope at Seawinds.

Governance manager Joe Spiteri introduces all the councillors-elect. He slips up once, describing one newbie as a “councillor-erect” – a stumble instantly corrected.

cowie-signature-pCEO Carl Cowie administers the oath/affirmation of office and hears the declaration that each has read the Councillor Code of Conduct. Mr Cowie signs in long, looping swirls that look from the gallery as if he could be creating sophisticated art.

This declaration is also administered to the three continuing councillors, who signed the contentious, prolix and overly prescriptive document just a couple of months ago, several penning their names back then under protest.

At the end of this mass swearing we are finally back in the hands of councillors, after an interregnum of 24 days where all our fates lay in the hands of staff. In this period Bandicoot detected no plagues of locusts, zombies mumbling in the streets or horses screaming in paddocks, bleeding from the eyes.

Indeed, the shire was as peaceful as was Brimbank municipality when councillor-free from September 2009 to 2016, the Brimbank chamber growing dusty from their absence after some naughtiness prompted the state government to throw them out.

The new Cr Martin took the chair to officiate over the election of the first mayor in the next four-year term. He looked very comfortable in the role, but his place at the top table indicated he was not a candidate – this year, at least.

It was clear as the meeting proceeded that the nuts and bolts had been determined at the pre-meeting meeting. The Ropers and Hearns, Edges and Clarks, Gills and Brookses and Paynes, spoke up to move or second, to begin engraving their names on the history of the peninsula. An electronic recording machine scooped up their words, to be heard by historians not yet born.

Mr Spiteri mentioned the councillor emolument and expenses, which the re-elected Cr Hugh Fraser moved, with an amendment that “the policy be urgently reviewed by a committee of the whole of council to report back to council on or befor 22 February 2017”.

This gently rolled hand grenade refers to the document in which councillors, excluding Cr Fraser of the re-elected trio, voted to grant themselves an additional $10,000 for “education and training” over each four-year term, additional to the $16,000 per four years for conferences, seminars and training provided for in the 2012-16 term.

fraser-hand-grenade-pIt also contains the massively increased (but as yet unspecified) reimbursement per kilometre that councillors can claim for private vehicle use, upped a few weeks ago from the staff-recommended 66 cents per kilometre to more than a dollar per kilometre, possibly as high as $1.255/km.

Bandicoot awaits release of the true figure and looks forward to repeal of this disgraceful display of help-yourself. 

Cr Gill was on his feet in a flash to speak on the Fraser amendment. He wanted the scale and size of councillor expenses debated this very evening. Among his election promises was his opposition to “excessive councillor expense allowances, which I will refuse to claim”. He got no support.

Next, the mayoral allowance was discussed. Set at “up to” $92,333, by the Local Government Act, it was misleadingly put to councillors and gallery in the shire recommendation “That council … notes that the mayoral allowance is $92,333…” Plus a car.

Not a good start in terms of transparency, so far as Bandicoot is concerned.

Next item was the mayoral term. It can be up to two years, but councillors accepted the recommendation for the usual one-year term.

Now came the real business of the night. Cr Fraser nominated himself, ditto Cr Antonella Celi and Cr Bev Colomb. The vote could be taken in alphabetical order or by lot, Mr Spiteri informed us. Bandicoot sniffed a pre-ordained result. In the alphabetical order of Celi, Colomb, Fraser, the jig was up for Cr Fraser. And Cr Celi, too, almost certainly.

Incidentally, the shire could adopt the honorific “president” rather than “mayor” if it wishes under Section 71 of the Local Government Act. But who would want to wear that honorific at this moment, with the looming horror of a president named Trump?

Alphabetical order was chosen. Choice by lot could well gang agley, as the dour Scot Cowie might say, quoting R. Burns.

For Cr Celi, one hand was raised – her own, although Bandicoot is pretty certain she had more like four or five supporters including herself. But, since Cr Colomb colomb-colour-jpg(pictured) was pre-destined, they held back their support to ensure a clear Colomb majority.

And so it was. No need to vote for Cr Fraser. Even Cr Celi voted for Cr Colomb, leaving Bandicoot wondering whether this cockamamie system allowed her to do so. There was a touch of Richmond about the procedure. It is from there that the people were enjoined to “vote early and vote often”.

Cr Colomb took the chair. New Nepean ward councillor Bryan Payne, whose previous local government experience was CEO of five councils, nominated and won the deputy mayoralty unopposed. Former mayor Graham Pittock, now a council retiree, came forward and adorned his successor with the mayoral chain.

The meeting was adjourned for 10 minutes to prepare for the next agenda item – shire Letters of Appreciation to be presented to retiring councillors Andrew “Billy” Dixon and Anne Shaw (Briars), Graham Pittock and David Gibb (Seawinds), Tim Rodgers (Nepean), Tim Wood (Red Hill) and David Garnock (Cerberus). Lynne Bowden had retired because of ill health in May.

Surprisingly, Ms Shaw and Mr Gibb, the longest-serving retirees, were absent. They had sought to have this ceremony conducted before the election but were refused. Their absence was a protest against this, some said, perhaps unkindly.

Before the letters were presented, mayor Colomb made a short impromptu address, thanking her colleagues and former colleagues, and the officers who carried out council policy. Her first task was to present Mr Pittock with a medal and his Letter of Appreciation.

Cr Colomb’s speech listing the Pittock achievements was of considerable length, but made away from the microphone and therefore hard to hear from the gallery. Suddenly, Cr Colomb paused …

“Too many here to read, actually, Graham,” she said. Replied Mr Pittock with a characteristic half-grin: “Just read it,” he instructed, to roars of laughter. So she did.

Then it was his turn. “I’ve got three minutes,” he began – the normal allowable time for a councillor during a meeting. More laughter. From the time he decided not to recontest his seat, “I went to bed and I slept. It was amazing. And someone reminded me yesterday that on Monday I had to come to council again: I had another sleepless night.”

Thanks to his wife, Prue, to the “brilliant” staff, and advice to new councillors – do not let the public “scare you off being innovative”.

There followed the other retirees. Bandicoot proposes to select a few gems from their speeches. Readers can listen to the shire recording for all their words, wise, witty and pithy.

Tim Wood (Red Hill ward) on hearing his achievements read out: “I’m very pleased to hear that. I can tell my wife what I’ve been doing all these years.” Then, words of advice to the newbies – be alert for cost-shifting attempts from upper levels of government, a chronic problem for local government.

Praising council officers: “I don’t want to mention names: Alison Leighton (chief operating officer) told me not to, but I will…”

Alas, Mr Wood, formerly His Honour Judge Wood, QC, of the Victorian County Court, missed a grand opportunity metaphorically to don the traditional legal horsehair headpiece; a tie-wig, possibly a bob-wig or even a full-bottomed wig, since this was a ceremonial occasion, and bring down an appropriate sentence for those before him – four years’ hard labour, with no remission for good behaviour.

pittock-rodgers-pTim Rodgers was cited for his passionate work for the environment, for Los Palos in Timor Leste; the winning a local government fellowship to study climate change; leading a push for more equitable treatment for Timor Leste over the rich oil reserves that lie in the Timor Gap – effectively appropriated by Canberra amid spying and other foul jiggery pokery aimed at theft of the asset from one of the poorest nations on Earth. (That’s Mr Rodgers, left, and Mr Pittock, right, with Jose Ramos Horta, Nobel peace prize winner and Timor Leste freedom fighter.) 

“It’s amazing how good they can make you sound,” responded Mr Rodgers. To the new councillors: “I’m sure you’ve got an interesting four years ahead of you.” A thank-you to the officers, then, to the newbies: “All you guys, you’ve been elected with an agenda … but never forget, the officers also have agendas (laughter), so just be wary of that when you’re making your decisions.” And a thank-you for the community, “That’s who we are meant to serve…”

And that was it. Time to adjourn for a sip (non-alcoholic) and nibble in the adjacent room. The question crossed Bandicoot’s mind as he tore an impaled prawn off a skewer: what will this lot (the newbies) be like in a year? The answer must wait 12 months.

Someone suggested a debrief at a nearby vendor of spirituous liquor. Three possible vendors were mentioned, all three places were visited, but we all finally gathered around a table and drank, dined and speculated. A fine way to start a new year.

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