For the first time in anyone’s recollection, a councillor’s application to attend a conference funded from a shire allowance provided for such purposes was rejected by the narrowest margin – on the casting vote of the mayor – at the 10 October council meeting.
The unprecedented knock-back, for Cr Simon Brooks (pictured) to attend COP 23 (Conference of the Parties, meeting 23) in Bonn, Germany, created waves later in the meeting after Cr Julie Edge got approval to attend an emergency services forum in Brisbane later this year.
Returning to the council chamber after exiting while her application was approved, she made a brief statement indicating she felt uncomfortable about her approval in light of Cr Brooks’ unsuccessful application. The implication was that she might withdraw her request to attend.
Councillors, on learning Cr Brooks would now pay his own way to Bonn because he regarded the conference as vital to the shire’s carbon neutral policy, approved his attendance as the shire’s official delegate. Onlookers noted the absurdity of this vote.
Shire CEO Carl Cowie will also attend the Bonn forum. His attendance was approved unopposed, under his $30,000 study allowance, along with visits to Sweden and Malta for further study and another conference.
This writer is aware several councillors hold a firm position on councillors taking such trips, especially to overseas events, and knew that the vote would be close.
In 2015 Cr Graham Pittock, then mayor, was officially invited to the Paris COP 21 meeting because of the shire’s carbon-neutral policy – one of Australia’s first – a keystone initiative Cr Hugh Fraser and former councillor Tim Rodgers had been prominent in advocating to the then council group. Cr Fraser also applied to attend COP 21.
It was debated at length but the councillors’ applications to attend were approved – as all applications to all events have been approved in the life of Mornington Peninsula Shire.
Some ratepayers’ antagonism towards shire money being used for such trips is well known. It is usually accompanied by the opinion that councillors do nothing for their communities and we would all be better off without them.
Several councillors over the years have harnessed this public feeling to their advantage, choosing to curry favour with constituents rather than explain the value of councillors generally and how attendance at conferences, seminars and events that improve them as councillors also enhances the shire.
Let me make the case for such spending and thus put a spotlight on why use of the meeting chair’s casting vote, on this and other occasions, must be prudent and considered.
FIRST, the shire’s carbon neutral policy is already saving ratepayers money, savings that can be diverted to other community projects.
This year’s UN COP 23 in Bonn succeeds the crucial international agreements forged at Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2015. The Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gases has been ratified by 168 of the 197 attending nations including Australia, nations responsible for most of the world’s greenhouse emissions.
Of this grand world deal aimed at cooling the planet, even the shire’s carbon-reduction policy plays its humble part.
SECOND, why should the shire attend? Look no further than the Abbott versus Turnbull follies in Canberra, and wherever else Tony Abbott chooses to speak his mind. Or observe the dithering on some policies that continues, apparently eternally, in Spring St. Should we rely on these squabbling, dithering levels of government?
We should therefore attend to see first-hand what transpires at these UN meetings. Why? Because Mornington Peninsula Shire is the third tier of Australian government, the closest to you. It takes away your rubbish, mends your roads, mows your sports grounds, stocks your library with books, CDs, DVDs, runs art and craft festivals … with the money it extracts from us all via rates. It is no remote hot-air hall; its meetings occur close to home and its elected members are a local phone call away.
THIRD, councillors are paid less than $30,000 a year for the privilege of nearly doubling their weekly work hours on your behalf. On top of that sum they receive various expenses and allowances, including the opportunity to improve their knowledge via conferences and seminars.
I’ve heard councillors brag that they cost the council nothing in such expenses. It’s a shallow, naïve boast. The world has moved on, far away from councils responsible for nothing more than garbos bashing the rubbish out of your bins, councils run by Town Clerks around the parish pump.
FOURTH, councillors are now – rightly – entitled to educate themselves to become more useful to their electors and are funded to do so. That’s what Cr Brooks wished to do (and will do, self-funded) in Bonn. His aim was to learn more to help fellow councillors and shire officers effect the important carbon policy. He should be there – with money provided in the annual shire budget to all councillors – to get the full benefit.
In a previous life I regularly attended an annual conference, a “user group”, for my newspaper (for a while I wrote not words but computer code). The agenda was a formality: the real utility came from conversations with other “users” who, like me, had searched the bowels of the editorial computer system we shared and found solutions to problems that confounded us. These we shared, and made our systems more efficient and more productive. That personal interplay and information exchange is what happens at conferences.
FIFTH, shire policy must be taken into account when conference attendance is being discussed. The COP meetings are a continuum; conferences you don’t attend might have yielded golden information, for the very low relative cost of attending.
Standard meeting protocol, and common sense, usually result in a casting vote being used to maintain the status quo. In the Brooks matter it should, in this writer’s opinion, have been cast to reflect councillors’ previous voting pattern and its commitment to carbon neutrality – and, by extension, the need to keep abreast of the fast-moving changes occurring in climate science discussed at appropriate forums.
Indeed, the shire has a document, ‘Meeting Procedures’, that discusses use of the casting vote. Meeting chairs have a first, or “deliberative”, vote with which they express their individual opinion. When a deadlock occurs they can resort to their “casting” vote, where different considerations come into play.
A publication, ‘Guide for Meetings & Organisations’, discussed in the ‘Procedures’, provides two yardsticks: maintain the status quo, or keep the matter alive. This second course would not have been possible in the Brooks case: a decision was needed.
Another publication, ‘Joske’s Law and Procedure at Meetings’, also essentially supports a status-quo outcome.
Yet a third argues that “the status quo is not a condition that should be considered”. That, I respectfully argue, depends on circumstances, which may result in a casting vote going either way. The circumstances on 10 October clearly, I believe, overwhelmingly favoured approval for the Brooks attendance at Bonn.
The author of the shire policy concludes: “Ultimately it is the mayor’s responsibility how (s)he exercises a second vote although there are clearly some practical, political and governance implications.”
These include whether the decision is:
■ In the interests of good governance in the municipality
■ Capable of being substantiated and justified
■ Supporting political stability
■ Advancing leadership
■ Creating a positive precedent
This writer believes the Brooks decision fails on most of these criteria. It certainly sets a noxious precedent.
The author of the ‘Meeting Procedures’ document concludes:
“Being unable to provide a definitive answer on how the casting vote should be used, I make the strong recommendation that the Mayor anticipate the likely use of the casting vote and that (s)he seek the guidance of colleagues on how they would like to see the casting vote exercised.”
A fine thought – but likely to lead to another vote deadlock!
■ Cr Colomb is finishing her third term as mayor. She previously served in 2007-08 and 2014-15.