I took a few hits in my effort to make what I see as positive change at Cottesloe in May. Council legalised dogs in theatres & public pools just because we don’t currently have either, despite my urging to leave that ‘as is’ (ie “not broke”). More importantly, Council took a step backwards (in my view) in transparency, openness and information flow in Agenda Forum question and answer rules, seemingly to address just one Councillor’s behaviour.
Agenda Forum Questions – recently, the Administration recommended that if a Councillor was not present at an Agenda Forum (AF), any questions they had submitted in writing in advance would not be answered at the Forum – and not be included in the Council Meeting agenda for the following week. I moved a motion to keep to the status quo (where Councillors can submit written questions to be answered at an AF), as despite it being only Admin’s recommendation, Council had simply acquiesced to it without debating it. Clearly, restricting the flow of information through questions and answers is a material matter for Council.
My primary concern was that a prevention on written questions being answered at the AF (as they have been, and which offers advantages of advance notice for the Admin to answer rather than being ‘on the spot’, and all other Councillors and the public being able to see questions in open meeting) is a step backwards: it can make it harder for Councillors to gather information, and other Councillors and the public don’t benefit from the answers given. I found this out first hand in April as I was absent from the AF and found it very difficult to get just six questions answered on the Depot Tender (in the end, I had to ask verbal ‘Standing Order 8’ questions at the start of the Council Meeting the week after, receiving only scant verbal answers an hour or so before we had to make the decision on awarding a $595,000 tender. It felt pointless asking them so late. No small matter).
So, why prevent any absent Councillor from having their properly written and submitted questions answered at an Agenda Forum, the whole purpose of which is a public forum for Councillors to ask questions? It appeared to me designed to do one thing – shut down one Councillor and her approach of submitting a large number of AF questions, sometimes on peripheral topics. Whilst I don’t support that Councillor doing this (as it seems to be abusing the process), I do support any Councillor’s right to ask advance written questions in an open public meeting as part of our due and proper process.
I proposed instead that Councillors use Meeting Standing Orders to rule ‘out of order’ any excessive or irrelevant questions, which would allow a proper consideration of whether questions are relevant and not excessive, rather than simply preventing them being asked altogether (and preventing other Councillors and the public from seeing the answers given). Importantly, this approach would not restrict the right to ask questions in an open meeting in order to deal with a consequence of having the right to ask those questions.
However, I could not persuade enough Councillors to support me on this – the majority voted to prevent any absent Councillor from asking advance written questions. I worry that this reflects a preference to shut down behaviour seen as undesirable at the expense of democratic process. Yes, I can understand Councillors feeling angry at excessive questions, but there is a democratic process (ie ruling a question ‘out of order’) that can do the same thing in a more accountable, transparent way.
We need to rise above personal frustration and ensure we have an open, democratic process that favours the proper flow of information and healthy debate. No, we should not allow unacceptable behaviour, but we should be willing to look deeper at the underlying cause of it and actually address that – not simply reach for a lever to shut down a democratic right. What is the reason one Councillor felt compelled to ask so many questions at Agenda Forum, and use the opportunity to raise queries on often unrelated issues? We don’t know the answers to this, as that part of the issue wasn’t debated. So, my hope is that for as long as we have this restriction on advance written questions, Councillors work together constructively to ask absent colleagues written questions, even if they disagree with their content.
Other key resolutions passed (agenda documents are here) include:
- “Seapines” scheme amendment (to allow 6 storeys on the site within the same 21 building height, subject to “design excellence” controls) was approved, provided 50% of ground floor space is activated as retail (both John Street and Marine Pde frontages). The next step in the amendment process is for it to go tothe WA Planning Commission.
- Smoking has now been banned on all beach areas in Cottesloe.
- Cottesloe Pier – Council resolved to inform the Department of Lands that it doesn’t support a commercial lease over the water areas off the Cottesloe Groyne. This doesn’t mean Council doesn’t support the Pier itself (nor that it does). I noted the significant work done by the Pier proponents to address public issues raised in their own consultation – however for such a significant and unprecedented development for Cottesloe, we need to take each step carefully and with prudence and a commercial lease over Cottesloe’s turquoise waters seems wrong.
- Foreshore – the different initial options to be presented to the June 8 Workshop on Car Park One and Two were approved for that process. The Workshop is followed by an Open House from 4pm to 5pm where residents can see the initial options and outcomes from the Workshop (Town of Cottesloe Lesser Hall, Civic Centre, 109 Broome St, Cottesloe).