Eight community members have combined forces to release a statement condemning the Central Coast Council’s three-month ‘trial’ of holding its public forum on a different night to the monthly council meeting.
By Jacquelene Pearson
“Council is seeking to reduce the impact of the public forum on council meetings,” the statement said.
“With local democracy suspended, the Public Forum held immediately before each council meeting has provided a rare opportunity for residents to hold council senior management accountable and seek to influence council decisions,” it said.
“Now, council senior managers want to undermine the effectiveness of the forum by separating it from the council meeting. They want the forum to be held on a separate day.
“Residents will have to attend two meetings rather than one, and the process will cost more. It is obvious that the main purpose of the change is to reduce the impact of the public forum on council meetings.
“Council managers will also control the public narrative as their words will be the only words heard and reported on the night of the council meeting.
“In recent months, forum speakers have been critical that council services continue to deteriorate despite massive rate hikes and asset sales. In response, the Administrator and council senior Managers have at times appeared not across the detail of their own reports or briefs.
“That is why they want an extra 24 hours to respond to constructive criticism with Council spin. Rather than seeking to marginalise constructive public scrutiny, they should use it as a spur to improve performance.
“None of the other changes within this ‘trial’ are anything new. For example, addressing items not on the agenda (the Open Forum) was previously allowed but abolished by Administrator Rik Hart himself in February 2022.
“Similarly, technology such as Zoom was used during Covid lockdowns, but subsequently discouraged by council itself.
“Five-minute speeches have also been allowed in the past before being reduced to three minutes by council.
“So, except for the 24-hour gap between the forum and council meeting, none of the ‘trial’ changes are new. All the changes could easily be added to the current forum held on the same day as the council meeting – as they have been in the past.
“This shows that the only real purpose of the ‘trial’ is to reduce the impact of the forum by separating it from the council meeting. The other changes serve merely to obfuscate this main purpose – which is most likely the predetermined outcome of the ‘trial’ and any subsequent ‘consultation’.”
According to the signatories of the statement, the trial does not comply with current council policy.
“Administrator Rik Hart announced the change at the April council meeting despite there being no notice on the agenda, no accompanying report, and no recommendation. Nor was the change approved by any formal resolution.
“The ‘trial is also non-compliant with the current Public Forum Policy. This policy, which has not been amended or suspended, states that any forum should be held on the same day as the council meeting.
“When those who govern us believe their own policies do not apply to them, this is a slippery slope towards arbitrary government. Sadly, this is all too common where democracy is absent.
“Local democracy has been suspended well beyond the originally stated purpose and should be Restored,” the statement said, pointing out that:
1. Our local government is dictatorial. Community input to decision making increasingly marginalised. Council “consultations” often appear to be predetermined. We have taxation without representation leading to higher rates and worse services.
2. The absence of public accountability is leading to arbitrary decision making where the Administrator and Council Senior Managers believe they can act in contravention of their own policies. There are no effective checks and balances.
3. The Administrator increasingly meddles in issues such as the Public Forum that would be better left for the return of an elected body with democratic legitimacy. He should focus on improving core functions through better management performance, efficiency and productivity. He should also remember part of his role is to be responsive to the local community.
“We will be seeking a meeting with Minister for the Central Coast and other State Members to discuss these concerns,” the eight signatories concluded.
The statement was endorsed by the following individuals, all of whom have spoken at the public forum in the past three months: Kate Mason; Kevin Brooks; Matthew Wales; Mark Ellis; Norm Harris; Nicky Prescott; Joy Cooper; Matthew Low.
The eight speakers were responsible for 12 of the 14 speeches given at the last three Public Forum meetings.
“The Community has voted with its feet – only one speaker registered to speak at the new format (non-compliant) forum on Monday 22 May,” they said. “How much did it cost ratepayers for Executives and staff (some possibly on overtime) to stage a non-compliant forum for just one speaker rather than letting him speak immediately before the Council Meeting as previously?”
At the May 23 Central Coast Council meeting Administrator Rik Hart said, “Last night’s public forum was the first in a three month trial to ensure the community and other stakeholders are getting the most out of the forum.”
He said the trial would be an opportunity to identify “what’s working and what could be improved.”
According to Mr Hart, running the public forum 24 hours before the formal council meeting would “allow for the councillors to hear the speaker’s perspective and have 24 hours to consider them.
“People do need time to look through and understand the points people are making.
“I want to make it absolutely crystal clear that this is a trial only and council will be going through the full community consultation process,” he said.