Experts sidelined on committees as councillors set to rule
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
In an often heated debate at last night’s council meeting the Mayor used his casting vote to push through a contentious reform of Hawkesbury Council’s committees which sees the number of committees slashed and groups of five councillors conducting each committee’s business, rather than a mix of voting experts and councillors.
Eight committees will be amalgamated into three broader committees, with each new committee consisting of just five councillors from the beginning of 2021.
Special privileges will be given to the fourth committee – the Heritage Advisory Committee - but Tourism, Waste, Sustainability, Access and Inclusion, Human Services, Floodplain Risk Management, Enhancing the Arts, and Civics and Citizenship will all be dissolved and their work rolled into the new combined larger committees.
The only committee to remain essentially as it was, is the Heritage Advisory Committee but even that will see changes.
At the last full council meeting two weeks ago, Cllr Nathan Zamprogno said putting Heritage in with waste was his personal redline and he voted against the changes as they were pitched then. Last night – with the Heritage committee spared the chop, Cllr Zamprogno’s vote went for the large scale changes – he called them “an experiment” - allowing the motion to pass with the casting vote of Mayor Patrick Conolly.
Committees as they currently stand have specialist members who are unpaid, give councillors specialist opinion, and who can vote in the committees.
While experts may still be called upon in the new committee structure to give advice on occasion – though the way that might work has not been made clear yet - they will not be able to vote on any issues - that will solely be the preserve of five appointed councillors on each of the new committees.
Graham Edds, a specialist heritage consultant currently on the Heritage Advisory Committee told the meeting it would be a bad idea to restructure. “It will be a retrograde step,” he said.
In a letter read out by Cllr Emma-Jane Garrow, Chair of the soon to be dissolved Tourism committee, Dr Ian Knowd, CEO of Hawkesbury Harvest Trails, said, “this move sends the wrong message to business and community as to Council’s stance on the key role that tourism has played in the district’s attractiveness and prosperity, and needs to play as we come out of 2020. In this context, it is hard to fathom what this move is really about. I hope the discussion on this motion manages to make it clear to all of us”.
Cllr Barry Calvert told the meeting the committee issue had been discussed by council for over four years and it was time a decision was made. “It’s time for us to move forward,” he said.
Cllr Danielle Wheeler said the major changes proposed – she called them “a radical change” - were not what was discussed in briefings to councillors. She proposed a different committee structure which would see some amalgamation but would not hand committees solely over to councillors.
Cllr Wheeler said if the changes proposed in the motion went ahead the council would be running committees like a parliament, not a council. Her amendment was defeated on the casting vote of the mayor.
Cllr Calvert said the proposed changes would allow members of the public to attend committee meetings “and could take part in the meeting from the floor. Five councillors would make a decision and pass it back to council. All members of the public would be welcome, so we are increasing the number of people involved. It’s a move forward and it’s something that should have been done years ago”.
Cllr Amanda Kotlash – who said, “there has been an unfortunate scare campaign” about the proposed changes - thanked Cllr Calvert “for his progressive work. The sooner we do this the better. It will make council more efficient”.
Cllr Kotlash said there would be some changes to the Heritage Advisory Committee but did not spell them out.
“Can I say there will be changes but they should not impact the vital work the committee does. More of the community will participate. This is a big step forward.”
Deputy Mayor Mary Lyons-Buckett called the desire to change the committee structure so radically, “policy made on the run, and that’s criticised in this chamber over and over”.
But Mayor Conolly disagreed and said the process had been going on for two years. “I don’t think we can be accused of policy on the run.”
Cllr John Ross said he, “didn’t find any comfort in what was said."
"We are going to disadvantage people who contribute their time and effort, particularly in the disabled area. We need them to inform us about what the issues are. We have not been afforded sufficient consideration of this”.
Cllr Pete Reynolds said having only councillors on committees and sidelining experts was “the height of arrogance. We are paid and they are not and to disrespect them in this way is unacceptable”.
“I just find this quite staggering that councillors would not allow us to get maximum value to our committees.”
Cllr Reynolds said the new plan would see the council setting the agenda for their own committees and could even lead to councillors closing down or merging other committees in the future.
“The issue of council having the ability to veto items that can go on committees is very dangerous. It’s censorship on a level we have never seen before.”
Cllr Paul Rasmussen also objected to the changes saying the council had spent years engaging the community and now it was “clearly radiating a culture to exclude the community. I’m just pleased Heritage has been hauled out of this burning crock”.
Cllr Zamprogno said, “this [the new committee structure] could run for eight months from February, and there’s an [council] election in September, to conduct this experiment and see if it works”.
Cllr Sarah Richards who supported the new committee structure said it was a clearer process, “more inclusive and transparent.”
And summing up before the vote, the Mayor said he believed it perfectly acceptable for councillors to put up agenda items for the committees because councillors had been elected by the community to work for them.
“I think this is a really positive change. It will be open slather, with a lot more involvement with the community.”
Cllr Calvert said he was disappointed at some of the arguments put forward by dissenting councillors, saying they were “emotional and based on myth and fear”. He said talk of a parliamentary type system was “a piece of scaremongering”.
“We will include the community so all the community can be involved. Councillors are elected to make decisions.”
The motion was passed by the casting vote of the Mayor. The new-style committees will begin to operate from February 2021.