The people speak and Georges River Council listens

Residents have retained the right to address meetings of Georges River Council in public forums.

The council's Draft Code of Meeting Practice recommended that public forums should be held prior to council meetings, ending the long standing practice of residents being able to directly address councillors.

But there were fears this would disenfranchise the community and diminish the democratic process.

The Office of Local Government's Model Code of Meeting Practice suggested a number of changes to the way that meetings were to be conducted in the future.

Of particular concern was the Model Code's provisions governing public forums which said: "there should be a gap between the public forum and the meeting to allow councillors the time to properly consider matters raised at the public forum."

But this requirements were not mandatory.

The Model Code also said that public forum did not have to be held prior to extraordinary council meetings or committee meetings of council, and that councillor attendance at public forums should not be mandatory.

Residents made their feelings known in their submissions.

"Democracy will be further eroded," one resident said in their submission.

Another said the changes would "effectively disenfranchise the community and create a breeding ground for dysfunction" similar to what occurred at the previous Hurstivlle Council.

Speaking at last night's council meeting where the draft code was to be adopted, a representative of the Kogarah Progress Association felt strongly that the forum should remain part of the council and that changing the arrangements "implies more closed doors".

The Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society (OFF) also called on the council to retain the existing meeting format where public forums are part of the council meeting.

Speaking of behalf of the Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society, Anne Wagstaff said that three key provisions of the draft code appear to diminish the democratic processes.

"OFF believes that forums must be held during the meeting, not prior to, so that councillors, council officers, media and the public are fully aware of the contents of each address," she said.

"The clauses relating to the Model Code are not mandatory so council is at liberty to schedule the public forum as part of the actual meeting and still comply with the Model Code.

"Of the 30 councils in Greater Metropolitan Sydney, all but three (Sydney, Fairfield and Mosman) allow members of the public to speak at council meetings.

"And even those three councils do allow members of the public to speak at committee meetings. So it appears that all other metropolitan councils have fully supported and facilitated public participation at council meetings. Why can't Georges River Council do the same?"

OFF strongly believed that public forums should form an essential component at extraordinary council meetings and council committee meetings.

"OFF holds the view that councillor must attend all of the forums so they are kept abreast of the community's views.

"Placing the public forum on the agenda of all council meetings - as part of the meeting, not prior to - will not only ensure all councillors' attendance at the public forum but also make it easier for members of the public to attend the public addresses and the council meeting."

Cr Nick Katris moved that all existing arrangements in relation to public participation during committing and council meetings be retained.

The status quo of the public address appearing in the order of all meetings of council will remain, he said.

"We have to listen to the submissions of the community," he said.

He said the Department of Local Government orignally made the recommendations.

"But I found it very peculiar that they should suggest that the public forum should be held separate to the council meeting," Cr Katris said.

"Whoever put that together obviously has not experienced a council meeting or how we are elected to represent our community."

He said it indicated some sort of disregard for the public.

Council Kathryn Landsberry also criticised the Model Code.

"I'm a bit tired of unelected bureaucrats telling us how we should deal with the community," she said.

"We need to have that interaction with the public. It is a democratic right."

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