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Fewer meetings, more "workshops" for city councillors

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Adelaide City Council is set to slash the number of formal meetings it holds and instead preference informal workshops, in a move opposing councillors claim may flout an Independent Commission Against Corruption recommendation.

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The majority of city councillors – including those aligned with the Team Adelaide majority faction and independent Jessy Khera – last night gave provisional support to a suggestion by Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor to cut the number of formal council meetings from two to one per month.

Under Verschoor’s proposal there would be one formal council meeting, one workshop and one informal committee meeting each month.

The remaining week of the month would be set aside for an optional special council meeting or workshop.

Currently, the council holds two formal council meetings and two informal committee meetings each month.

Central ward councillor Houssam Abiad, who supports the change, last night received backing from the majority of elected members to restrict voting to council meetings.

It is an attempt to gag and stop a noisy minority, who are a nuisance

If the proposed meeting structure is supported at next week’s council meeting, the changes would come into effect from next year.

Abiad said limiting voting to formal council meetings would remove the need for councillors to informally vote on recommendations at committee meetings.

“Most things (debates) are done… at committee, where we don’t see an extreme influx of people coming in on digital means or physically in the gallery,” he said.

“I think it’s important for council when they are debating something that the debate is… in an open council chamber where decisions are made.

“For the purpose of transparency I think it’s important that we have those debates in full and vote on them in council.”

Verschoor said there would be community and media access to the gallery for all meetings.

This is the culture of this council – minimise debate, avoid criticism, make yourself a low target and kill democracy in the process

She said the proposed meeting structure would mirror how the Melbourne, Sydney and Perth City Councils already operate.

“We will have an absolute minimum of 12 (formal council meetings) and going by the number of special meetings and things that we’ve had to call I would imagine there would be far more than 12 (meetings),” Verschoor said.

“I am also hoping that the motions on notice really talk to strategic intent.

“One would hope that the number of motions would actually reduce because it should be caught up within the strategic plan that we’re going to approve in the beginning of the new year.”

Mary Couros, Franz Knoll, Simon Hou, Alexander Hyde and Jessy Khera backed Verschoor and Abiad.

Those on the minority faction of council – including Anne Moran, Robert Simms and Phil Martin – opposed the move, arguing it would lead to less public scrutiny and would hinder decision-making.

Moran likened the proposal to a second “gag” on the council, following the short-lived restriction on councillors earlier this year preventing them from speaking to the media about their motions.

The majority of the public thinks that this country is over-governed

She referenced a report released last week by the Independent Commission Against Corruption into Playford Council, which warned South Australian councils against holding informal meetings.

“In my view the City of Playford, and other councils, should exercise caution in the way informal gatherings are used to inform proposals that will ultimately be considered in a formal council meeting,” Deputy Commissioner Michael Riches wrote in the report.

“While it may be a fine line, there is a risk that the council will face an allegation that, in the course of an informal gathering, it was able to ‘effectively obtain’ a decision on a matter outside of a formal council meeting or committee meeting, which is expressly prohibited by section 90(8) of the LG (Local Government) Act.”

Moran argued the council’s administration could use workshops and committee meetings to “gage our views and that is not on”.

“It is an attempt to gag and stop a noisy minority, who are a nuisance.”

Simms said restricting formal meetings to once a month would lead to “marathon agendas” and “less community scrutiny of the council”.

“I think what this is actually about is trying to stifle and silence dissenting voices on this council – those who use the opportunity of a council meeting to highlight issues, to bring issues to light on behalf of the community.

“Democracy dies in the dark.”

But Martin went further to claim “this council is completely undemocratic”.

“This initiative is Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor and Houssam Abiad and Team Adelaide’s coup de grâce to democracy for the City of Adelaide,” he said.

“I would be delighted if (ICAC commissioner) Mr Lander wanted to look at this council, he should do so because this is the culture of this council – minimise debate, avoid criticism, make yourself a low target and kill democracy in the process.”

But Khera said “the majority of the public thinks that this country is over-governed”.

“I’m only motivated to say this because of the abject fervour that’s come from one side of the argument here,” he said.

“We are actually a very terrific council – it’s a very good group of people – and the best that this council demonstrates is when we are speaking without voting.”

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