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Mayoral "interference" claim over city councillor motions

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Adelaide City Council’s CEO says he will clarify how his staff offer advice to elected members, after the Lord Mayor was accused of interfering with councillor motions.

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North ward councillor Phil Martin and area councillor Anne Moran have raised concerns about changes proposed by Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor to councillor motions on notice – a practice which they claim has been occurring throughout this council term.

Verschoor claims she works with every councillor to ensure their motions are factually correct and “respectful” of the other elected members, the administration and community.

InDaily has seen an email exchange between Martin and Verschoor’s senior advisor Oliver Luckhurst-Smith, which outlines a request from Verschoor to change the wording of a motion Martin had lodged for Tuesday’s council meeting.

The original motion lodged by Martin included the phrase: “notes the motion put forward by councillor Couros on 23 September 2019, scrapping the previously unanimously agreed North Adelaide Local Area Traffic and Parking Management Plan motion of 12 March 2019”.

In an email sent on Monday, Luckhurst-Smith requested Martin consider rephrasing the motion to remove mention of councillor Couros.

He also asked Martin to consider changing the word “scrapping” to “rescinding”.

In a follow-up email sent later that day, Luckhurst-Smith said Martin’s motion on notice “is yet to be approved and processed through the council business team and the Lord Mayor awaits your response before accepting the motion”.

Martin responded by saying he was “shocked that it is now the Lord Mayor exercising judgement over what is and is not an acceptable motion for Council’s consideration, particularly when the office of Lord Mayor is, by its nature, a political position”.

“I must say that it has been the long established practice of elected members to lodge motions and question on notice with the CEO for his independent judgement that they meet all governance requirements,” Martin wrote.

“The motion I lodged is factually correct and there is nothing inaccurate about the words used.

“It was the motion of councillor Couros and it did scrap the parking trial and the promised business parking scheme.”

Martin went on to suggest a variation to the motion, which did not remove the words “councillor Couros” or “scrapping”.

Martin told InDaily the council’s CEO Mark Goldstone later told him via email that Verschoor’s actions were, in his view, appropriate.

He said in the email, Goldstone cited section 12 of the Local Government (Procedures at Meetings) Regulations, which state a presiding member (Lord Mayor) “may refuse to accept a motion if the subject matter is, in his or her opinion, beyond the power of the council or council committee”.

Martin claimed the wording of the regulations implied that a Lord Mayor can only refuse a motion on notice if it is ultra vires (beyond the council’s legal power or authority), which he argued his motion was not.

North ward councillor Phil Martin. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Law Society of SA president Amy Nikolovski told InDaily the society’s reading of the regulations implied that “the presiding member would not have the power to change the wording of a member’s motion”.

“The presiding member could intimate that they were not willing to accept a motion in its current form on the grounds that the subject of the motion is beyond the council’s power, but would be prepared to accept a revised version,” she said.

“It would then be up to the mover of the motion to decide whether to put forward a revised motion.”

According to Martin, Verschoor has advised councillors on the wording of their motions and questions on notice throughout this council term, including a question on notice he had raised earlier in the year, which originally included the words “Lord Mayoral chauffeured limousine” and was changed to “vehicle entitled under Standing Orders”.

But he said it was only this week that the Lord Mayor’s office had indicated in writing that it may not accept a motion on notice until the wording was changed.

That position, he said, was implied in Luckhurst-Smith’s statement: “the Lord Mayor awaits your response (to the proposed changes) before accepting the motion”.

Martin said he notified Moran of the email, who then sought legal advice about the application of the regulations.

Moran told InDaily this morning that the verbal advice she received confirmed that the Lord Mayor could not force councillors to change the wording of their motions, or decline a motion if it was not ultra vires to the council.

Adelaide City Council CEO Mark Goldstone. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

In a statement to InDaily, Goldstone said he would “take this opportunity to clarify how our staff offer support to councillors”.

He said the administration suggested minor amendments to councillors’ motions “from time to time” to provide “improved context to the community and enable administration to provide more meaningful responses to motions”.

“Suggesting minor changes to words (for example replacing the word “scrapping” and replacing with “rescinding”) does not alter the intent of the motion.

“It’s my view that a “rescission of a decision” was the appropriate terminology in these circumstances.”

According to Goldstone, Martin later agreed to change his motion.

Moran said the Lord Mayor’s office had suggested changes to about one third of the motions she had lodged this council term.

They have wandered into really, really dangerous territory by doing this

She said initially, the changes were “fairly benign”, but “as the months went on it’s become much more directive”.

“They would bland them down a bit, remove any mention of Team Adelaide, basically take any edge off them,” she said.

“We’ve kind of being put up with it… because it started off with them just wanting us to draft the motions a bit better.

“But this behaviour has been accelerating and it’s far more serious now.”

Moran described the practice as “outrageous”.

“I was code of conducted earlier this year for jokingly calling somebody a ‘dickhead’ but looking at this – this big thing – it’s just being ignored.

“They have wandered into really, really dangerous territory by doing this…”

Moran said during previous terms, councillors would lodge motions to the council’s secretariat for approval from the CEO.

“What the secretariat can do, which is an independent member of the administration, is warn a councillor that it (their motion) might be defamatory or code of conductible or something like that,” she said.

“But, that’s not the job of the Lord Mayor, who should not be telling us how to conduct ourselves politically.”

She said she would raise the matter with Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll, who is currently seeking to reform the state’s Local Government Act to give mayors the ability to exclude poorly behaving councillors from meetings.

“I will write a letter to the Minister because I think the Minister needs to see, when he’s talking about penalties and increasing the power of the Lord Mayor, just exactly how dangerous that is.”

Martin said members of Parliament needed to be “very, very careful” when considering proposed new mayoral powers.

“Every member of the Legislative Council needs to look at what’s been happening at the City of Adelaide…,” he said.

Verschoor said she worked “with all elected members to ensure that motions or questions that come into the chamber are both respectful of each other, the administration and the community, as well as being factually correct”.

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