50% cut in Council meetings pushed through on casting vote of Mayor – but no cut to councillor fees
As the flood clean-up continues and many damaged roads are still not patched after the floods - indeed some are still not repaired since last year’s floods - councillors have voted to cut the number of full meetings they hold by half.
One councillor against the move said, "I think the optics of this...are potentially dreadful".
It means Tuesday’s Hawkesbury Council meeting will be the last of its fortnightly meetings as councillors move to a monthly format after Mayor Patrick Conolly once again used his casting vote, this time to push through a 50% cut in full council meetings, yet with no cut to councillor's fees.
But those in favour of the meetings moving to monthly say they will have at least as much work to do, with the proposer of the change – Labor’s Cllr Amanda Kotlash - saying “I’m actually wanting to work twice as hard but I want to do it in a smarter way”.
Councillors were deadlocked on the decision 6-6, leaving Mayor Conolly to use his casting vote – that gives him 2 votes – to push the change through.
Liberal and Labor voted together to move to the monthly meeting format, with Greens, independents, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, and the Small Business Party voting against the change.
Those 6 councillors in favour of the move – only 2 of them spoke at the meeting - say it will improve efficiency – while those against say the community expects their councillors to show up more than once a month.
The Motion to go monthly – seconded by Deputy Mayor Labor’s Barry Calvert - came off the back of a report from council management saying they were overworked with administrative duties relating to the fortnightly meetings - and that $76,000 could be saved annually by halving the full meetings.
“The current fortnightly meeting cycle provides very little time to action items from one meeting before reports are due for the next meeting,” said the management report.
“A shift to monthly meetings would allow greater opportunity for staff to brief councillors through workshops on matters of strategic importance and community interest,” said staff.
“I guess the take home message of this option,” said Cllr Kotlash, “is that staff are needlessly doing administrative duties instead of really being freed up to do more analytical and policy developments. That in itself makes me think we should give it go and even if we do go to monthly meetings there is nothing stopping us having extraordinary meetings if necessary. It’s a bit of a win-win situation.
“This is a good option and will save us some time, save the staff some time, I mean.”
It’s not clear how the new structure will work in terms of time spent at each monthly meeting, with the current fortnightly meetings often running into 3 and even 4 hours, so there could be an expectation some monthly meetings would run up to 8 hours.
Independent councillor Les Sheather said he couldn’t believe councillors were suggesting cutting the frequency of meetings.
“We’re meant to look after our community and we seek professional advice on how that might happen with direction from the staff. To minimise that contact and relationship, I just can’t believe it, I really can’t.
“Our role is to service our community,” he said.
Greens’ councillor Danielle Wheeler said she believed moving to once a month would be a backward step.
“Shoalhaven [council] have just shifted from meeting once a month to twice a month because they can’t get through the volume of work that’s required to help their community recover,” she said. “I don’t want to see us in that position.
“I don’t think the community expects us to do less, expects us to meet less. I expect they want to see us showing leadership and that does not come from us not being in the chamber.”
Cllr Wheeler also pointed out new councillors – elected in the December 2021 election - needed to feel part of the organisation.
“I’m quite disappointed to see this reduced to such simplistic financial terms, this is a matter of governance and leadership,” she said.
Cllr Wheeler brought up a concern shared amongst those voting to keep fortnightly meetings.
“I think the cost savings are potentially overstated. Whilst putting on a meeting contributes to the cost, reports and business paper preparation will still be the same, unless what’s really being proposed here, is that the elected body of council will be given less information and make fewer decisions and that more will be determined by delegation, and that’s not acceptable to me and will not be acceptable to any of the people I’ve canvassed in the community.
“The people who elect us rightly expect us to deal with issues when they are current, not 4 weeks later.
“I certainly don’t think it’s acceptable to the people who voted for me on a platform of grassroots democracy."
Independent councillor Nathan Zamprogno asked if councillor allowances would also be cut by half.
“We’re turning up half as often and being presented with half as much information and making half the decisions,” he said.
“Are councillors that are in support of this motion prepared to take half the stipend that they are currently being paid? I suspect not. That’s not on the table.”
Each of the 12 councillors receives an annual fee of $24,320, with the Deputy Mayor getting $33,332 and the Mayor on $75,388.
“I was elected on a platform of grass roots and us having more voices,” said Cllr Zamprogno, “and in fairness, and having as many voices in decision making as possible.
“I think the optics of this … are potentially dreadful.
“I don’t care what other councils do,” said Cllr Zamprogno, “in fact the example shown simply proves we are better than those other councils and we should stay that way.”
According to the council management report, only 4 of the 32 councils in the Sydney metropolitan area hold fortnightly meetings – Hawkesbury, the Hills, Cumberland, and Parramatta.
Independent Mary Lyons-Buckett said she was “a little bit perplexed about why this is so difficult to get these meetings done”.
“We don’t have DAs any more. We used to have 6 to 8 DAs on a night that reports were written for. We don’t have any committee meetings, we are not having minutes coming to council from committees. I’m just not sure why it is so much more work. Back in the day we had sometimes 40 or 50 items on the Business Paper and meetings did go late, and we don’t have to deal with that many things now.
“There is nothing to stop us having shorter or a specifically targeted meeting.
“I just don’t understand why we would have less meetings. In some of those other councils, that hold monthly meetings, they have other delegated functions to other committees where decisions are being made. I just think we don’t want any reduction in the level of accountability.”
The Small Business Party councillor, Eddie Dogramaci, voting against the change, said Hawkesbury Council shouldn’t be compared with other councils in the metro area.
“They don’t have the river, didn’t suffer the disaster as much as we did,” he said. “We should keep meeting twice a month.”
He added he believed under a monthly meeting schedule, “the work will pile up”.
But Mayor Conolly, who along with Cllr Kotlash were the only 2 councillors who voted for the change to speak on the issue, said, “it is bringing us back in line with any other governance body I can think of”.
“It does [the current meeting cycle] create an administrative burden on staff. We have got entire teams working on little else other than turning around minutes and business papers, motions and reports every two weeks, and for that are we achieving anything great that we couldn’t achieve in a monthly cycle?
“Councillor Zamprogno to say we will only be doing half the work is just not correct. There is no suggestion here that we are going to delegate any functions to the General Manager, that are not already delegated, or anybody else.
“Every report that has to come to council will continue to have to come to council. There is no way, it’s not structurally possible, that there will be fewer reports, that’s just not how it works and I think Cllr Zamprogno is very aware of that, so can’t possibly be half the work, it’s just a more efficient way of working.”
He added the council could vote to change the frequency back if they found two months in it wasn’t working.
He said, “the suggestion is on that Tuesday we would still have workshops and briefings.”
“Nobody is suggesting less reports and no one is suggesting we don’t have the internal capacity to produce the Business Paper, the suggestion was we could do this more efficiently and have staff concentrate on flood recovery, as an example.”
Cllr Kotlash added, “it’s interesting that the discussion has gone along the lines of we don’t have the time to do our community justice. But if we met once a month we would have the opportunity to have briefings and workshops.
Cllr Kotlash said council meetings were, “not a time to make campaign speeches or grandstand.”
“And it seems like the people that want to keep doing fortnightly meetings are the people that spend time promoting themselves and not actually talking about the business of council.
“The debate side of decision making goes, you know, goes before a meeting. A meeting isn’t really the place where you make up your mind. There is a lot of work that goes into decision making that happens way before a meeting.”
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