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Opinion

Town Hall democracy falls asleep in the dark

Opinion

Adelaide City Council’s move to slash the number of meetings has backfired badly – and elected members, staff, ratepayers and considered governance are the worse for it.

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“I hope you brought your sleeping bag,” a council staff member told me as we headed into the Town Hall chamber at 5.30 on Tuesday evening, reluctantly bracing ourselves for what would end up being eight hours of councillor debate and bickering.

At 1.30 on Wednesday morning we emerged, bleary-eyed and reeling – and that was before councillors discussed confidential items.

The marathon was born from a decision by Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor – supported by elected members aligned with the Team Adelaide majority faction and independent councillor Jessy Khera – to cut the number of monthly council meetings from two to one.

Under the revised schedule, which came into effect this year, councillors are now only allowed to vote and debate items at the monthly formal council meeting.

The remaining three weeks of the month are reserved for informal committee meetings and workshops, during which councillors are allowed to ask questions but are not allowed to say how they will vote.

Verschoor said in December that the revised schedule would streamline work and make decision-making more efficient.

She also said it would clear up confusion from the previous system, when councillors informally voted at committee meetings before a final, formal vote at council meetings the following week.

“One would hope that the number of motions would actually reduce because it should be caught up within the strategic plan,” she said.

They did not.

Tuesday night’s agenda contained 22 motions with notice – compared to last month’s seven motions – as well as nine questions on notice, 15 reports and two deputations.

Councillors and staff were offered only two, ten-minute breaks during the course of the eight-hour meeting to stretch their legs, and grab a drink or bite to eat.

Bowls of lollies were passed around, staff rested heads in hands and there were longing glances at the clock as it ticked on into the early hours.

The chamber clock strikes one. Photo: Stephanie Richards/InDaily

Most concerning, however, were the repercussions the conditions had on elected members, many of whom had worked nine-to-five day jobs and who were required to debate, scrutinise, question and pass important decisions – some estimated to cost ratepayers millions of dollars – late at night.

And the council reached another level of its notorious factional squabbling.

Elected members feuded with the public gallery during breaks, name-calling across the chamber was rife, Verschoor was required to read the council’s standing orders to misbehaving members, and motions were pulled out of sheer exhaustion.

The chamber effectively became a pressure-cooker, where personalities clashed, motions were rushed through and the longing for bed outweighed considered decision-making.

The effect this will have on ratepayers is not insignificant.

Apart from some interrogation by Jessy Khera and serial questioner Phil Martin, Deputy Lord Mayor Alexander Hyde’s motion to commit the council to a zero waste target by 2030 – by effectively setting up its own waste collection system to include businesses and buildings which now use private contractors – passed the chamber with minimal scrutiny at 1am.

This was despite staff admitting they were not aware of the cost or legal risk the council could face to achieve the target.

Similarly, Helen Donovan’s motion to improve pedestrian safety around the park lands was withdrawn at 1.15am when Khera proposed to amend it – the task of debating the change deemed too onerous at that time of night.

Councillors of course have a duty to make sure they are fully informed and acting in the best interests of their ratepayers at all times, but there comes a point when even the most resilient needs to sleep.

In an email to Verschoor after Tuesday’s meeting, area councillor Anne Moran said she would move that the council reinstate fortnightly council meetings.

“Reasons blindingly obvious,” she wrote.

Hear, hear.

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