Archive: Councillor Performances: Secret Meetings

Last Updated 21/3/07


Macedon Ranges Council: MRRA Asks Residents Is It Time For The State Government To Step In? 

(22/8/06 - C) We live in a darkening democracy but the government won't act unless you say 'Enough'!   More...


"Pull Up The Drawbridge, Flood The Moat" - Council Dives Back Into The Bunker Of Behind Closed Doors 'Briefing' Sessions

(30/9/06 - C)  Seems some Councillors just can't cope without them

It seems some Councillors are blaming the horrid things that are going wrong at Council on not being well-enough briefed.  The charge to take Councillors (well, those that attend briefing meetings) back behind closed doors was led by Cr. John Letchford (South) who put up a motion to overturn Council's reluctant decision earlier this month to go with only one all-afternoon briefing meeting each month.  He wanted 3 all-afternoon meetings a month.  Mayor Geoff Neil (East) seconded the motion.   Both said having briefings would make for better and more informed decisions.  Cr. Letchford argued that going back to having briefings was one way of deliberating.  It was part of a Councillor's commitment to attend and Councillors owed it to the officers, it would allow flexibility.  He said that with the Gisborne Call Centre, if Council had had longer briefing sessions everyone would have been up to speed.  Council needs to look at things in a reasonable and relaxed time.  Cr. Helen Relph (South), supporting the motion, said briefings were the only way of being informed, if Council wasn't informed how could it make informed decisions?  Cr. Noel Harvey (West) said briefings were part of getting informed, and he was never fully informed from briefing meetings.  It was a way of discussing the pros and cons and forming a decision/position. Councillors should be prepared to put the time in.  Cr. Rob Guthrie (South) said his commitment when he stood for Council last year was to the program in place at that time, as approved by Councillors in 2004 and on 4th September 2006.  When he ran for Council he was committed to that program and knew exactly what he was taking on.  Others are trying to change it.  He pointed out that the Policy and Issues, and Finance and Operations, committees were in fact briefing meetings open to the public; if others wanted an afternoon briefing as well, Council may as well get rid of the committees, and do it now.   Cr. Tom Gyorffy opposed as well, confirming that the committees were briefings held in public and that the others were missing the point.   He holds particular concerns that afternoon briefings are being used as a substitute for Council meetings. Also that briefings are held on the same day the decision is made.  He said it was a nonsense to have more briefings - half the Councillors aren't there anyway, and he doubted if Councillors got more from them than they were getting now - if Councillors read their notice papers.


The motion was carried, with the additional proviso that the three all-afternoon Wednesday briefings be held on an "as required" basis, with the support of Crs. Geoff Neil (East), Noel Harvey (West), John Connor (West), John Letchford (South), Helen Relph (South) and Henry Bleeck (East).  Crs. Tom Gyorffy (West), Rob Guthrie (South) and Sandra McGregor (East) opposed.


MRRA Says:

From what we see at Council and Committee meetings, it's doubtful if 10 briefings a month would improve the quality of decision-making processes - or decisions.  If you don't get it, you just don't get it - right? 


What we have seen walking into the chamber is an agreed position - agreed between those who attended the afternoon meetings.  All you have to do is watch faces.  Who knows, and who doesn't.  Eye contact here, the lift of an eyebrow there. Out roll the changes and alternative motions made as a result of the afternoon briefing: agreed positions.  Out rolls the bombastic posturing.  Then there's the principle applied by some that making the decision is all-important - e.g. plough on, a bad decision is better than no decision.  How do briefing sessions change the 'gotta-make-a-decision' mentality?  


There's not a lot of democracy or merit in how decisions are being made, particularly when only some Councillors attend the briefings. The fact that dealing with issues in public makes so many of our Councillors uncomfortable says something too.  And as for Cr. Letchford's recent argument that briefings help Councillors avoid asking stupid and moronic questions in chamber - nice thought, but will it work?  We aren't holding our breath...


Those Councillors who supported "pulling up the drawbridge" again put up arguments that were fairly pathetic and just a teensy bit see-through and self-serving.  From the rhetoric in chamber in recent weeks, it might not be difficult for a reasonable person to form a view that what this is really about is hiding ignorance, protecting images, maintaining power blocks and controlling outcomes - and that works better behind closed doors.  Or at least some think it does.  NB  The Gisborne Call Centre is just one example of what goes wrong when what should be done in public is done behind closed doors.


Crs. Gyorffy, Guthrie And McGregor Accuse Other Councillors Of Making "Secret" Council Decisions At Behind-Closed-Doors Briefing Sessions:  "We Aren't Being Consulted About 'Council' Decisions"

(12/9/06 - C)  Council is dysfunctional, says Cr. Gyorffy - Council should operate in public so everyone knows, not make decisions at afternoon briefings behind closed doors.

It got a bit lively at last Wednesday's Council Committee meeting over claims decisions are being made at 'secret' briefing meetings only some Councillors attend. 


As Council considered its briefing meeting cycle Officer Stephen Mahon explained that at an earlier facilitated meeting on Council's Code of Conduct for Councillors, management of business had been addressed and the proposal before Councillors responded to core issues raised.   It was proposed to have no briefings on Policy and Issues, and Finance and Management, Committee meeting days (1st Wednesday of the month);  on Planning Committee meeting days (2nd Wednesday) briefings would be tailored to accommodate matters to be addressed; and on Council meeting days (4th Wednesday), briefings would start at 3.00pm.


Cr. Tom Gyorffy (West ward) wanted more information on the wording of a recommendation that Council meet on Planning Committee days...' to receive presentations from other parties', asking what was contemplated.  Mr. Mahon replied past practice was to accept presentations from developers at briefing meetings, and from time to time, presentations on other issues are also made.


Cr. Geoff Neil (East) wanted a change to the recommendation to include the Mayor being consulted in relation to scheduling meetings for the budget - he wanted discretion for Councillors as well as the Chief Executive.  He asked other Councillors if the recommendations allowed enough time to address all the issues.  A surprised-looking Mr. Mahon said that at the earlier Code of Conduct Review,  legitimate issues had been raised about timing and briefings and sharing information amongst Councillors, and he thought it had been agreed this was the way to go.  The Chief Executive, Ian Morris, explained that a starting time had not been assigned to planning days to allow flexibility, but briefings would probably start at 1 or 2 pm, and the proposed changes related to starting times for Council meeting days (3pm), and only having two briefings a month. 


Cr. Noel Harvey (West) said that was far too prescriptive - briefings may need to start earlier.  He had no problems with the principle of 3pm but setting a starting time meant the meeting couldn't start before then.  He also objected to being restricted (on the 3rd Wednesday, when formal meetings are usually not held) to being restricted to dealing only with "Ward based community engagement and consultation" and wanted it changed to include 'any other matters as required'.   The CE explained scheduled meeting times provide a framework for officers to schedule other meetings.  Cr. Noel Harvey (West) then moved the officer's recommendation with changes he wanted, Mayor Geoff Neil (East) seconded, if a change was made to allow the Mayor to be consulted about the CE's scheduling of some meetings. Cr. Harvey (West) said he was happy with that, arguing there was no flexibility without the proposed changes, for example today started at 5, could have moved it back to 4.  He didn't want restrictions on what could be dealt with on the 3rd Wednesday - he had put aside Wednesdays as "Council Day".


Cr. Tom Gyorffy (West) opposed, saying when council had its facilitated meeting on the Code of Conduct, one thing was clearly understood: briefing = briefing, not back-door meetings.  In the last two months there had often been instances of only some Councillors making decisions before coming to Chamber.  That meant other Councillors had no input into decisions.  Cr. Geoff Neil (East) asked for examples; Cr. Gyorffy (West) said he was coming to that, then added on 12 July there had been an afternoon briefing meeting - while the CE had been on leave - in which restrictions on the number of people permitted on-site at the Gisborne Call Centre - an issue strongly debated in open Chamber in May - were changed from 80 people to 150 people.  That decision never came back to any meeting of Council, and then a permit issued based on the change.  At the last meeting in Romsey, regarding the settlement of the Kyneton Bowling Club matter, there was another afternoon briefing when other Councillors were not present, and they weren't told of the decision that some had made.  These three Councillors asked questions at the real meeting, thinking the matter was under discussion, but the decision had already been made.  Cr. Gyorffy (West) said the previous Sunday he had sent an email trying to fix the permit for the Call Centre (relating to adoption of minutes), but it was discussed in the afternoon briefing, and the motion was put, only no-one told those who weren't at the briefing.  Then when he tried to explain what should be done, it made no difference because what had been decided in the afternoon went through.  Cr. Gyorffy (West) said this Council is dysfunctional, and he couldn't support this meeting/briefing situation.  Council should operate in public so everyone knows, not afternoon briefings behind closed doors.  He referred to the 1999 Hunt Report on Council processes, which found briefings were OK but held well before meetings, not on the same day, and finished saying that as far as presentations by developers to briefings went, that matter was being addressed in the draft Code of Conduct and shouldn't even be on the briefing schedule.


Mayor Geoff Neil (East) replied he could easily respond to each point raised by Cr. Gyorffy, but instead insisted no decision had been made in the instances detailed, and there had only been discussions between staff and Councillors on 12 July - and the decision was made under delegation anyway.  He wasn't convinced there was anything not correct or wrong done.


Cr. Rob Guthrie (South) responded saying what is discussed at briefings is not public.  He was at the 12 July briefing and the Mayor's recollection of events was incorrect.  He wasn't present at the Bowling Club matter briefing and didn't know the results of the briefings at the the evening Council meeting where he had asked what the settlement was, and no-one could answer.  He didn't know the decision had already been made - and a subsequent email from the CE indicated some sort of decision had been made at that afternoon briefing.


Cr. Geoff Neil (East) said it was determined at the briefing to settle the matter, but not a dollar amount.  Cr. Guthrie (South) rebutted Cr. Neil's claim, relating how he got a call from a resident the following day who had been told the settlement amount by a Councillor - a resident knew but he, a Councillor, did not.  He added he would only support briefings as per the 1999 Hunt Report and findings from the 2004 review of that report.


Cr. Helen Relph (South) said briefings are value.  Matters should come to Council before meetings; don't limit briefings, we do need to meet.  Briefings are extremely valuable; new information comes in, Council should hear it.  Briefings can also take place by email, if things need to be conveyed, information comes into home.  Briefings provide a chance to get information one-on-one, have discussion, hear each others' views, and be discussing in a valuable way.


Cr. John Letchford (South) announced he hates making backdoor decisions.  Back-door decision-making - he hadn't seen it.  He missed one briefing and went around asking the others what he missed - anyone can ask at a Council meeting what happened in the afternoon.  He said he had difficulties gazing into a crystal ball, knowing what's urgent and what's not, and pointed to a late change to an officer's report circulated at this meeting, saying does knowing at the last minute mean we don't accept it?  He said he agreed with Cr. Harvey, need briefings for decision-forming;  don't want Council embarrassing themselves by asking stupid and moronic questions.  He said there was no back-door decision on 12 July, he was there.  As for the Bowling Club matter, it was a notice of motion and several of them gave concern.  It's good to discuss matters in briefings, so when it comes to Chamber, residents want to see smart decision-making, without diatribe - that's makes for an easier flow.


Cr. Sandra McGregor (East) responded saying the Councillor should talk about embarrassment when the papers last week described her as confused at Romsey - she was confused all right!  The decision was made in the afternoon and she wasn't privy to it.  


Cr. Noel Harvey (West) closed saying in all his years on Council there had never been a decision made in briefings, that was illegal.  Decisions are made in public.  As for Cr. Guthrie's claim, he didn't believe anyone would tell a resident, he didn't believe Cr. Guthrie, his claim was untrue.  As for the Bowling Club motion, he'd changed it in Chamber so it wasn't a decision behind closed doors.  Anyone saying the decision was made behind closed doors is a misrepresentation. Briefings make for informed decision-making but should be held well in advance of the actual meeting.


The motion was moved Noel Harvey (West), seconded John Connor (West), and carried with support from Helen Relph (South), Geoff Neil (East), Henry Bleeck (East) and John Letchford (South).  Crs. Tom Gyorffy (West), Rob Guthrie (South) and Sandra McGregor (East) opposed.


MRRA Says:

It's quite clear from relevant documentation that a decision was made at some time on 12 July to vary the Gisborne Call Centre conditions - and it wasn't made at the evening Planning Committee meeting.  The 26 July minutes, where they referred to the 12 July decision, are to be changed to say that decision was instead made on May 24, but there is no record of it in Council's adopted minutes for that meeting.  So when was it made?  Crs. Harvey and Letchford say a decision wasn't made on the 12 July; Cr. Geoff Neil says it was made under delegation; Cr. Rob Guthrie says a decision was made - and so originally did Council's draft 26 July minutes. 


Who's telling the truth?  


If all decisions were made in public, the question wouldn't even arise...


There is something fundamentally wrong with a Council that prefers to make decisions with only some Councillors present (the 'same olds') at briefings the general public can't attend.  The Hunt Report found and condemned the same types of practices in 1999 (a time when Noel Harvey, John Letchford and Geoff Neil were Councillors). 


MRRA agrees with Cr. Tom Gyorffy - this Councillor group is dysfunctional.  Who's going to do something about it?


Councillors Walk Out As 'Recycleds' Revert To Type On Gisborne Call Centre:  Door Slammed On Community - And Process

(31/7/06 - P)  'Behind closed doors' is back with a vengeance but Crs. Gyorffy and Guthrie say they weren't going there

Something's definitely going on with the planning application for a Call Centre in Prince Street, Gisborne.  Something at least five of our Councillors are privy to but don't seem to want the community to know about.


Councillors Rob Guthrie (South ward) and Tom Gyorffy (West) walked out of last Wednesday's Council meeting after five of their fellow Councillors voted to take the Call Centre application behind closed doors to, as it turns out, amend the permit conditions.  Those five were Mayor Geoff Neil (East) who moved the motion to go confidential, and Cr. John Letchford (South) who seconded it, with support from Crs. John Connor (West), Noel Harvey (West) and Helen Relph (South).  Cr. Henry Bleeck (East) seemed to oppose the motion, Crs. Tom Gyorffy and Rob Guthrie definitely did.  Note: Cr. Sandra McGregor (East) was absent.  The Mayor said the application warranted going confidential because it needed frank assessment which couldn’t be done in open chamber; because confidences had been given to him by other parties, and there were significant cost implications on Council and a policy shift.  Before leaving the chamber Cr. Gyorffy (East) told the Mayor he had a conscientious objection to making planning decisions behind closed doors.


The Call Centre is collecting quite a history.  It began on 14th December 2005 when an application for 14 single storey shops (floor area 3,253m2), on what is now the Call Centre site, came before Council.  Public notice was given of this application, with one objection received.  Planning officer Bruce Lancashire recommended refusal because parking was insufficient and the development represented poor urban design.  Council instead deferred consideration to allow further discussions with the developer.  The application came back to Council on December 21st, again with a recommendation to refuse.  A late report circulated to Council recommended approval with stringent permit conditions.  The permit said provide 96 on-site car spaces (78 were proposed) and 24 on-street (24 proposed): total 120 spaces to be provided.  The planning scheme says provide 260 spaces.


On May 24th 2006, at its ordinary meeting Council considered a new application for the same land:  3 storeys of shops and offices with a floor area of around 7,900 m2, including a Call Centre occupying the entire second floor, plus a basement carpark.  Planning Officer Barry Green advised Council no public notice was given of this proposal because it was not felt it would cause any detriment.  The permit approved by Council restricted the number of Call Centre staff on site to 80, but other permit conditions for this significantly enlarged proposal required substantially less of developers than those applied to the smaller, single-storey development approved on 21 December. See earlier story.   Based on the officer's report, the plan proposed 184 on-site spaces.  Council cut planning scheme parking requirements, finally asking for 183 on-site car spaces and 38 on-street: total 221 spaces.  The planning scheme says provide 398 spaces for this amount of floorspace. 


From Council minutes of last Wednesday's meeting (received from Council today), it appears the same five Councillors who voted to go behind closed doors decided, while there, to remove the '80 staff on site' restriction - there is now no limit on the number of people who can be on-site (NB Oddly, the minutes refer to removing a cap of 150 persons - how did the cap go from 80 to 150?).  It also seems the 38 on-street car spaces counted as being provided by the development include car spaces that already exist (i.e. there aren't necessarily 38 new spaces being created), and Council, by allowing the development to claim existing street spaces, is contributing the equivalent of $200,000 to the project.  Ever generous, Council is also giving the developers the option of paying cash for the shortfall in car spaces, or of putting parking spaces somewhere else in the town - well, we at least hope it will be in Gisborne. 


You might note elsewhere on this website that Council currently has a cash-in-lieu parking policy out for public comment until August 11 - the policy hasn't yet been adopted by Council, although it appears to be being implemented here.


MRRA Says:


What next - another job-creating Juvenile Justice Centre (JJC) proposal, like the one that almost brought Council down in 1999, and brought thousands of residents out in protest?  The JJC that gave rise to the Hunt Report, the report that found Council wasn't operating properly?  The report that made all those recommendations for doing things more democratically - things like respecting and consulting the community, not tossing process out the window, and not having an executive style Council where just some of the Councillors made the decisions for everyone?  


Crs. Harvey, Neil and Letchford were on Council in 1999.   And they are on Council now.  They surely remember the Hunt Report...


There are 3 critical issues with the Gisborne Call Centre:  Denial of rights and natural justice, lack of process, secrecy.


The community's legal rights to be notified and to comment on this application have been ignored, while at the same time those behind the development seem to have had the ear of Council.  Not giving public notice, and so getting no objections, means the development approval can't be reviewed at VCAT.


Council has side-stepped and short-cut planning requirements and processes to get the development through, for example, it doesn't come within a bull's roar of planning scheme requirements for parking (and long-term, that's going to hurt Gisborne).  Governance processes haven't been there either.


Gisborne South Freeway Service Centre “Secret Deal” Proposal Made Public

(23/12/05 – P) South Ward Councillor John Letchford goes for it, then against it

MRRA was concerned when Macedon Ranges’ Council went behind closed doors at its 14th December Planning Committee meeting to discuss the Gisborne South Freeway Service Centre issue.   MRRA understands a planning permit issued in 1998 for the northbound service centre has expired, and as VCAT later tied a permit issued for the southbound facility in 2003 to the northbound service centre proceeding, neither proposal seems to have a valid planning permit at this stage.  The only inkling provided to what Council had discussed was when the resolution made behind closed doors was read out in open chamber: “It was moved by Cr Guthrie seconded by Cr Letchford that Council having considered the request of Phillip Bing and Associates request the Chief Executive to advise the applicants that Council has refused this request for the extension of permits P980-0712 and P202-0076.”  Residents who had fought the proposals were not notified that Council was again considering the matter.  However, the minutes of the 14th December meeting (now adopted by Council and available from its website) shed more light on what happened.   The original motion before Council was to adopt planning officer Barry Green’s recommendation that Council AGREE to renew both permits through a consent order at VCAT.  That motion was moved John Letchford, seconded Noel Harvey but lost.  Cr. Letchford then seconded the motion to REFUSE.  Councillors Relph (knows the applicant) and Connor (manager of a retail petrol station) declared conflicts of interest and did not vote.   To see the minutes go to, go to Council Meetings and Strategies, Council Meetings, Minutes, 2005, Planning Committee 14 December, page 15


Local Resident Claims Councillor Gagged Petition Presentation

(21/7/05 – C) Or was the Councillor simply following Council meeting rules?

Local Gisborne resident Russell Mowatt has claimed in a local newspaper that Councillor Deb Dunn ‘gagged’ him at a recent Council committee meeting.  Mr. Mowatt went to the Committee meeting armed with a petition carrying some 2100 signatures in support of improved transport services in the Shire.  It seems however that Mr. Mowatt expected to address Council but was not allowed to do so after Cr. Dunn queried this action and called Council’s meeting rules to everyone’s attention.


MRRA Says:

The claim of ‘gagging’ isn’t really fair.  Council has rules governing how meetings will be conducted, which are publicly available.  What’s surprising is that Mr. Mowatt (who has run for Council several times) apparently isn’t familiar with Council’s Local Law No. 5 (Processes Of Municipal Government: Meetings And Common Seal) which says:


“100. Petitions and Joint Letters


A petition or joint letter presented to the Council must lay on the table until the next ordinary meeting of the Council and no motion, other than to receive the petition or joint letter may be accepted by the Chairperson, unless the Council agrees to deal with it earlier.”


An MRRA rep attended this meeting and saw nothing untoward in the process Council adopted.  MRRA’s view is that Council has an onus to uphold its own rules, and the same rules should be applied to everyone.  That’s what seems to have happened on the night in question.