Posted 9/10/12


Macedon Ranges Shire Council Elections, 2012

Special Feature: 

What You Should Know Before You Vote...


MRRA Home Result Election 2012 Homepage How Votes Are Counted The Candidates Candidate Preferences About MRRA


About Council


Council Meetings and Decisions

The “En Bloc” Motion

Keeping It All Quiet On The Macedon Ranges Front

Who’s Really Running The Show?

The White Hats & Black Hats, and The Payback System

Do We Have A Teflon-Coated CEO?

Will An Election Fix What’s Wrong At Council?



Are The Principles Of Democracy Dead – Or Just Dying – In Macedon Ranges?


When Mayor Henry McLaughlin attended MRRA’s June 2011 meeting, he hadn’t long been Mayor. 


MRRA raised several matters, and asked why, two months before, did Council abandon its Planning Committee meetings, and increase officers’ delegated authority to make planning decisions (without referring them to Council).  The Mayor didn’t see much wrong with the new arrangement, saying it allowed Councillors to focus on strategies and policies by spending less time on day to day decisions.


And how has this experiment in one-Council-meeting-a-month, non-representative decision-making - and Councillors ducking their responsibilities - gone?   Very badly.  In the last 2 years, the detested “council culture” that flourished a decade ago – which the previous two CEO’s tried to erase – is back!


Council Meetings and Decisions

Council has since May 2011 held only one formal Council meeting a month.  Although, logically, there would be more to deal with at that meeting, some meetings have lasted an hour or less.  Why?  Because most of the time most agenda items are approved “en bloc”.   That is, one of the Councillors stands at the meeting, and moves that officers’ recommendations for agenda items (reads out agenda item number/s) all be approved in that one motion.


Unless you are across the agenda items, you don’t know what’s being approved.  At the March 2012 meeting, 16 of 22 report items and notices of motion were approved “en bloc”.   Short, sharp, infrequent Council meetings may suit some Councillors, but is it democracy?


It is obvious that decisions about the “en bloc” motion (i.e. which agenda items will be included), and decisions on the agenda items it deals with, are not made in the Chamber, but elsewhere.  Council holds “briefing” meetings most Wednesdays (not all Councillors attend) and always in the afternoon prior to the monthly Council meeting.  While briefings are not open to the public, some (including developers) are allowed to attend from time to time.


The “En Bloc” Motion

The “en bloc” motion used to approve agenda items in bulk isn’t the usual motion used to make Council decisions.  That motion allows debate on the matter being decided.   In contrast, the “en bloc” motion is a procedural motion (usually used for process issues, like ending debate, or letting reports lay on the table).


Council’s Local Law identifies the only procedural motions Council can use, and the “en bloc” motion being used isn’t one of them – it instead seems to have been made up.  It also prohibits debate in Chamber.  Mayor McLaughlin allows no-one (including Councillors) to speak during the “en bloc” motion.


So it’s tough luck if you want to know why a decision was made, or who supported it, and more tough luck if you went to a Council meeting for a particular item and it wasn’t discussed because it was decided “en bloc”   The “en bloc” motion was first used the same month Cr. McLaughlin became Mayor – December 2010.


Examples of items approved “en bloc” to date include planning applications, spending unbudgeted money ($180,000 for the Kyneton Mechanics Institute), and confidential items such as awarding contracts (which the agenda says are to be decided at the END OF – not BEFORE - the meeting).   These practices deny ratepayers transparency, accountability, accessibility, representation in decisions that affect them, and democratic governance.


Keeping It All Quiet On The Macedon Ranges Front

Noticed how quiet the papers are these days about what’s happening in Macedon Ranges Shire?  Little meat, mostly fluff, and mainly Council telling us how good it is.  We’ve asked some journalists and they said that the way meetings are run, there isn’t much to report on, and the rest is mainly Council media releases.


Noticed how Council runs patronizing, skimpy and often mis-leading “consultation” processes, where the outcome is already decided and Council is just going through the motions?  How Council calls a consultant spending an hour outside a supermarket, and one meeting, “comprehensive” consultation?


Noticed how any Councillor who even looks like disagreeing, or questioning an officer, or letting some part of the cat out of the bag, is closed down in Chamber, usually by the Mayor?  

Ask yourself, what do you really know about this Council?


Only what it wants you to see, hear and know, and that’s not the same as what you need and are entitled to see, hear and know.


It all seems to be more about protecting Council’s image and backside – as if Council is an entity separate from the community, putting its own interests before the community’s interests.


Who’s Really Running The Show?

With increased delegated powers, Council officers make most planning decisions (even at times ones they don’t have delegated authority to make).   What else are they deciding?


Having the administration make decisions – if not policy and strategy – makes being a Councillor so much easier:  the odd Council meeting, less chance of being seen to make a mistake, no controversy, no pressure, no effort, no scrutiny.   BUT also no transparency, no accountability, and who knows what’s going on or whether ratepayers’ interests are being served?  Lately it has gone even further, where officers are making decisions without telling Councillors (at least, not all Councillors).  For example:

The White Hats & Black Hats, and The Payback System

Local government sounds like democracy, but reality disappoints.  The 1999 Hunt Report, on how the then Macedon Ranges Council operated, found a “kitchen cabinet” existed, where only some of the executive – and some Councillors – got the information and made the decisions.


With the numbers in Chamber, a ‘cabinet’ can ignore any opposition.  Council today seems deeply divided into those who support the executive and are happy to go with the flow, and a minority who aren’t happy but don’t have the numbers to change it.  Criticism is seen as ‘troublemaking’ and ‘breaking ranks’, payback for which can be others voting against whatever a ‘troublemaker’ supports, just because the troublemaker supports it.   No merit – just payback.  Concerted campaigns are being run against sitting “troublemaking” Councillors to get them “un-elected”.


Do We Have A Teflon-Coated CEO?

Cast your mind back to the uproar in 2008 over the CEO’s original contract.  Remember how it was signed by then Mayor Noel Harvey, apparently without other Councillors knowing about it, and was for 5 years (not the 3 years agreed by all Councillors)? 


Current Councillors started their term by endorsing that 5 year contract.  Now they’ve just approved another 5 year contract, well before the expiry date of the first (January 2013).  We don't know what the vote was, or who supported it, because the whole process is confidentialWhy?


Many would say the CEO’s contract was a matter for the next Council to consider, but with the CEO locked in until 2017, his tenure ends not in the next Council but the one after that.


Not explained is why information about the CEO’s employment - performance indicators and reviews, contract terms and salary - are kept confidential.  Council minutes show the CEO got a 5% salary increase in early 2011, but what he got in 2012 has not been made public. 


Council minutes also show that although the CEO has declared direct conflicts of interest, he doesn’t leave the room while the matter of conflict (including his contract and performance reviews) are decided.  Add the way Council is operating under this CEO’s watch (a CEO advises Councillors and is responsible for standards and how a Council functions), surely it was time to advertize for a new CEO rather than prematurely and secretly reappoint the current one?


Will An Election Fix What’s Wrong At Council?

A Council election will be held on 27 October.  There is a deep community dislike and distrust of the Council we’ve got, but will new Councillors fix the problem?   Only if strong and principled people are elected who will act without fear or favour, inject plenty of  and insist on change, and at least 5 of them are elected.


Too often the power and privilege of being a councillor has a Jekyll and Hyde effect - particularly on some Mayors (most recover after 6 months but others may not).  The altruistic candidate becomes a posturing, attention-seeking councillor. Focus turns on pet projects, personal slights, who said what and voted with who, and who got publicity.  Then the in-fighting and voting blocks begin.  The big picture of responsibility, common purpose and community interest drowns in self interest. 


The Shire needs good, honest people with a higher sense of purpose, deeply committed to community, openness and democracy, who have skills, and the guts to stand up to the ‘forces of darkness’ that threaten to engulf us. 


Most candidates don’t inspire.  


The Shire doesn’t need a return of the ‘has-beens’, the ones thrown out at every other election then re-elected because people forget or don’t know why they lost the last time. 


We definitely don’t need people awash with self-importance, or whose heads are turned by power, or are puppets for political parties looking for a local power base, or who have a single issue or push their own or mates’ barrows, or well-meaning people who don’t know much about Council and will be dependent on what officers tell them.  Question every candidate before you vote.