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City council considers cutting meetings, dinners

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Adelaide City Council will consider cutting back on the number of meetings and costly councillor dinners as part of debate on wholesale changes to its governance structure.

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The council today told InDaily it spends on average $750 on dinner for elected members and senior staff each week – not including wine – totalling about $30,000 during last year’s sitting term.

The debate follows a reduction in the council’s executive team from four senior directors to three, prompted by the resignations of former directors Steve Mathewson and Beth Davidson-Park in April.

Acting Lord Mayor Houssam Abiad told InDaily this morning the debate was planned to occur in the coming weeks, to ensure elected members had an opportunity to “relook at how they would like to run their committees and their council”.

“There’s been a restructure of the administration where we’ve now got three directors, so the CEO might want different alignments between council and the staff and how that information flows and comes to committees and councils,” he said.

“Under the Local Government Act we only have to have ten meetings a year.

“I don’t know if that’s a requirement that we need to adopt because I don’t know if we can punch decisions out quick enough to get outcomes for the community.”

Abiad said “it was the plan” that councillors would discuss the potential to reduce the number of meetings held each year, saying he would like to consider how the Melbourne and Sydney City Councils operated on one council meeting a month.

“I don’t have a problem with that model, for example, because as long as the committee can make a decision and bind council, there’s no point of doing that double take,” he said.

“It presents a huge governance issue around people making a decision, then media or public gets involved and then the council changes its mind.”

Currently, the city council operates with one council meeting a fortnight, with a committee meeting held on the alternate week.

I want basically staff in the administration to interfere in the debate

Councillors can debate proposals at a committee meeting and indicate how they plan to vote, but no formal decisions are made.

“In my experience what we can’t afford is not to be nimble to have a mechanism – call it a council, call it a committee – that will allow us to make good decisions quickly to be able to keep the ball rolling,” Abiad said.

“Melbourne does that, they’ve got a much sizeable budget than us and they still are able to do it with one meeting a month.

“For me, it comes down to us needing to make good decisions and quick decisions when required.”

Deputy Lord Mayor Houssam Abiad. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Abiad also flagged his desire for the council’s administration to have greater power in committee meetings.

“One thing I would like to see happen is have the CEO or the portfolio director chair the meeting in my committee where they can actually allow a more robust debate and discussion,” he said.

“I want basically staff in the administration to interfere in the debate and say ‘no sorry councillor this is not the right information you’ve got, this is what you need to look into.

“I want the staff to sit around the table between councillors and be given the opportunity to say, ‘no, that’s not right, that’s not correct.”

Area councillor Arman Abrahimzadeh said the council should “definitely be looking at other capital cities to see what they are doing”, but he said he did not want to provide specific comment until the council released its agenda.

Abiad is set to receive pushback from some city councillors, who have likened the potential cut to the number of council meetings as a repeat of the council’s “gag order” controversy, during which the council copped criticism for ruling that elected members could not speak to the media about motions before the publication of meeting agendas.

That decision was later revoked by the council.

If this gets through it will just be handing the power to the administration, saying ‘You run the city’

Area councillor Robert Simms said a cut to council meetings “would really reduce accountability and community scrutiny of the council”.

“It’s the gag order by another name,” he said.

“The council chamber is the avenue for councillors to raise community concerns and highlight issues in the public domain.

“Less meetings means a less responsive council and less community awareness of council’s work.”

Fellow area councillor Anne Moran has also opposed the move, describing it as a “disgraceful gag” that would bolster the power of the Team Adelaide majority faction – of which Abiad is credited as leading.

“When you are in a minority faction, which I am, you do not have any power except on the floor of the council,” she said.

“If this gets through it will just be handing the power to the administration, saying ‘You run the city’.”

Moran said she and other non-Team Adelaide affiliates were planning to ask the council’s CEO Mark Goldstone to open rooms at Town Hall for “de-facto meetings” if the council decided to cut the number of formal meetings.

“It will essentially be a de-facto meeting with the public and the media for us to have a frank and fearless chat about the city,” she said.

But Abiad said changing the governance structure was not aligned with council politics.

He said the council regularly reviewed its governance structure to ensure elected members felt comfortable with how decisions were made.

Abiad also flagged changes to the council’s weekly dinners.

Let’s be transparent and let’s explain to ratepayers what the costs of those extras are

Currently, councillors and members of the Council’s Assessment Panel are invited to partake in a catered dinner – including wine – after every meeting at Town Hall.

“There’s a lavish dinner in the Queen Adelaide Room with drinks that ratepayers are paying for,” Abiad said.

“I’m not saying we need to get rid of the dinner, and the drinks, and the wine after council meetings – I think councillors deserve to have a meal – but how about the poor staff that sit around and wait all night at the meeting and I’m not sure they get to eat.

“If you want to talk about transparency, let’s tell the ratepayers how much that costs every session.”

Abiad suggested the council could reschedule dinners to occur before council meetings– thereby reducing the cost required to pay staff late at night – or have sandwiches instead of cooked meals.

“We have councillors in this chamber pushing for transparency, so let’s be transparent and let’s explain to ratepayers what the costs of those extras are,” he said.

But Moran said she would oppose any change to the dinners.

“Friendships are made at the dinners and that is against the Team (Team Adelaide’s) cohesiveness to have them,” she said.

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