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"Gag order" claims in city council rules shake-up

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Adelaide City Council is proposing to elevate the role of the Deputy Lord Mayor and tighten restrictions on councillors speaking to the media under a wholesale review of its standing orders.

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The revised standing orders, to be debated by councillors at tonight’s committee meeting, recommend the role of the Deputy Lord Mayor be amended to give him or her default chair responsibility of all core committees in the council.

Under the changes, the Deputy Lord Mayor would also have the ability to discuss council decisions directly with the CEO – a responsibility previously limited to the Lord Mayor.

Meanwhile, councillors would be barred from speaking to the media about motions they intend to put forward before the publication of council agendas.

The review comes as tensions continue to simmer at Town Hall over councillor infighting and cries of factionalisation in the council chamber.

Area councillor Robert Simms told InDaily this morning the changes to the Deputy Lord Mayor’s role would concentrate power in the hands of the second in command.

He also criticised the proposal’s intent to abolish councillors’ ability to nominate fellow members as committee chairs.

“Concentrating power in this way smacks of megalomania to me,” he said.

“It also prevents other councillors (from) being able to build their skills as chair.”

If the revised standing orders pass, the Deputy Lord Mayor would become default chair of the council’s ordinary committee and strategic planning and development policy committee – both of which are remunerated positions.

However, current Deputy Lord Mayor Houssam Abiad insisted he would not be paid above his current salary – currently 1.5 times the annual $25,930 councillor allowance – if the changes were passed.

“In fact there would be a massive cost saving there,” Abiad said.

“Those committees, if they’re chaired by the Deputy Lord Mayor, there would be no extra incentive in payment.

“The Deputy Lord Mayor would do more work for less money and there’s a saving from having to pay anyone else from doing that role.”

Abiad said having the Deputy Lord Mayor as the default chair of committees would ensure a “strategic alignment” with the Lord Mayor.

He said the proposed provision granting the Deputy Lord Mayor the ability to discuss council decisions with the CEO would only be evoked if the Lord Mayor was otherwise unavailable.

“Obviously in the presence of the Lord Mayor, the Lord Mayor takes precedence and those conversations don’t need to be had by the Deputy Lord Mayor,” he said.

Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor said the proposed changes to the standing orders would put “a little bit more meat” around the Deputy Lord Mayor’s role.

She said she had already discussed the changes with Abiad and the council’s governance team, and looked forward to hearing other councillors’ views at tonight’s meeting.

“It is a real privilege and an honour to be the Deputy Lord Mayor and we think these changes just make sense,” she said.

“The Deputy Lord Mayor does get paid a little bit more than an elected member and we think with that should come some additional responsibilities.

“These changes are just formalising what the role has traditionally been.”

Both Verschoor and Abiad supported a ban on councillors speaking to the media about motions before they are published in council agendas.

“When the agenda is made public, the administration’s comments are made public and that means that if members of the public are unsure about what you’re moving or doing, they have an opportunity to go the agenda with the clear details,” Abiad said.

“That means the public can be well-informed when they’re making a decision and not just reading something in the media that lacks the administration’s comment.”

Verschoor said the ban would ensure the public had more certainty about information published in the media.

“There have been many instances when a councillor has spoken to the media but then the motion’s been withdrawn, or changed,” she said.

“The agenda is generally published on a Friday… and so there is plenty of time for the media before the motion is brought to the chamber.”

But councillors Robert Simms and Phil Martin likened the motion to a “gag” on council members.

“It does represent what might seem like a bit of a gag on the discussion prior to the council meeting,” Martin told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning.

“Therefore… I guess that’s a loss to… community’s discussion of agendas if it’s accepted. ”

Simms told InDaily yesterday the media ban would quell councillors’ ability to communicate to the public.

“Part of the role as elected members is to be out there talking to the community and pushing ideas forward and we have a right and a responsibility to do that,” he said.

“I see no harm in allowing councillors to be able to talk to the community through the media about what they’ve got in mind.

“This is like gagging councillors and I do see it as an affront to democracy.”

The council will discuss the revised standing orders tonight, ahead of a vote at next Tuesday’s council meeting.

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