Councillors choose to quash question time

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By Rowan Forster

Councillors have voted to abolish the only remaining avenue whereby ratepayers can seek unrehearsed, spontaneous answers from bureaucrats.

In a razor-thin decision on Monday night, a recommendation by officers to ban supplementary questions was passed.

All community queries will now be filtered by the council and responses rehearsed in advance.

The move prompted fury later that night, with Cardinia Ratepayers Association’s Gloria O’Connor lashing out at Mayor Collin Ross when her attempt to ask a further question was rebuffed.

“My rates pay your salary,” she said.

“I have to say something because I don’t know what to do.”

According to a report released this week, the change is being proposed because Cardinia Shire has committed to webcasting council meetings.

The council fears impromptu comments broadcasted online could defame individuals and result in claims for libel and slander.

Councillors Brett Owen, Ray Brown and Carol Ryan voted against the proposal, citing the motion as damaging to transparency.

“I am against anything being taken out that affects the transparency of this council,” Cr Brown said.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think people get the right answer to their first question and they go away dissatisfied.

“If they meet with an officer afterwards, that doesn’t brief the community or other councillors.”

His sentiments were echoed by Lakeside Residents Group secretary Tony O’Hara, who described the proposition as “extremely unfair”.

He believes if the council is concerned about potential legal action, it should temporarily disable webcasting for the community questions segment.

“It’s quite irresponsible of them trying to stop people having a say in the public arena,” he said.

“I usually ask my questions on the day and I find it’s a very well-rehearsed response and sometimes I would like the questions to be answered at that point in time, which is what the supplementary question is so useful for.

“Sometimes the scripted response provided by council doesn’t even answer the question.”

During Cardinia Shire council meetings in April and May, community question time descended into chaos, with residents interrupting councillors, asking multiple questions and failing to leave the stand.

Mr O’Hara suspects that may have something to do with council’s decision.

“People went overboard and took over and the mayor didn’t stop them,” he said.

“They need to take control.”

Cardinia would follow in the footsteps of the Casey and Greater Dandenong municipalities, which have both barred supplementary questions.

Author Doug Evans outlined the issues involved as a result of the web streaming initiative.

“The webcasting does expose a councillor or staff member to a possible action of defamation by the publishing of the webcast, as it is the publication of the insult or thing said that is actionable,” he said, in the report.

“The increased risk is created due to the much wider audience created by the webcasting.

“There is a risk associated with allowing supplementary questions during Community Question time as the Council is not aware of what comments may be made during such a supplementary question.

“Obviously if comments are made at a meeting with no public gallery and the meeting is not webcast and the comments made receive no publicity it is unlikely that any action would be brought.”

The council used to webcast meetings in the past, but stopped because it did not have defamation insurance.

It then reverted to releasing audio from meetings in a podcast the following day.

Cr Ross, who supported the motion to remove supplementary questions, said it ultimately came down to money.

“Mooney Valley Council spend something like $150,000 on the equipment for their webcasting,” he said.

“They have an officer from the communications department that monitors everything that is said and they have a dump button and a lawyer present to identify defamatory comments.

“We don’t have the expense there to put in all the safeguards that we need.”

 

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