Public banned from council committee meetings

Report and comment by Steve Hart

Updated 6 July with comment from council on A&R meetings and access to its agendas.

Members of Hume City Council’s audit & risk (A&R) committee have voted to ban the public from its quarterly meetings. The decision was accepted and endorsed – without debate – at a meeting of the full council on Monday 24 June.

When meeting chair Naim Kurt asked who was proposing the motion to accept the decisions of the A&R committee, Cllr Jarrod Bell raised his hand – he sits on the A&R committee with Kurt.

However, Kurt gave the honour to Cllr Jack Medcraft. Medcraft was seconded by Cllr Karen Sherry (who stood in for Cllr Bell at the 1 March A&R meeting when it was decided to exclude the public).

In addition to excluding the public, councillors wanting to watch A&R meetings via a livestream will need to apply for access.

See who supported the decision in the video below.

Hume City votes on Audit & Risk Committee

By way of comparison, in July 2020, the council’s then CEO – Domenic Isola – published a notice on the council’s website (PDF here, source link here) advertising an A&R meeting that invited the public to attend or watch online, and download the meeting agenda.

A&R meetings are no longer live-streamed for the public to watch, its agendas are not published, and the minutes of its meetings (its decisions) have only now started to appear following a campaign by Sunbury Life. Our repeated written and verbal requests to see A&R agendas have been ignored.

Open access

Once-upon-a-time, if media had questions about a council’s finances its chief finance officer would answer questions face-to-face, questions about planning decisions would be put to the head of the planning department, and so on…

Naim Kurt
Mayor Naim Kurt.

Reporters would meet and interview people who knew the answers and were trained specialists in their area of responsibility. We’d have intelligent conversations, get the facts, and the full picture.

Now the media can only ‘interview’ Hume City’s mayor. For example, when Sunbury’s public pool sprung a leak last year we asked to speak with the council’s engineer to understand the issue. Council offered us an interview with the mayor. He is not an engineer, aquatic, or otherwise.

Today, when responses do arrive from council – sometimes months after questions were first asked – they can be bland, brief, and frequently avoid the key points altogether. By the time we get worthwhile answers the story is cold. And that’s just how the council likes it. We publish them anyway.

Be silent or be gone

On Monday 27 May, the majority of councillors voted to change its governance rules so the chair (mayor or deputy mayor) can remove a councillor from a meeting if they don’t fall into line.

Cllr Sam Misho.
Cllr Sam Misho.

Public consultation on this proposal closed Monday 17 June. If adopted, the risk is that the freedom of councillors to question facts and decisions during meetings will be curtailed. Stay shtum, or risk being kicked out and prevented from voting on items later in the meeting.

The chair’s decision will not be put to a vote. The chair will be judge and jury.

A comment by Cllr Sam Misho on this proposal was strange. He raised concerns about the proposed policy, but voted for it because everyone else spoke in favour of it. Is that all it takes?

Cllr Sam Misho speaking on Monday 27 May supporting a proposal to remove councillors from meetings – despite having concerns about the policy.

In truth, “everyone” did not speak in favour of it.

Follow the money

In April, the majority of your representatives on Hume City Council voted to keep its accounts hidden from public scrutiny. One of the reasons given is that if you saw them you might ask too many questions.

Even public question time at council meetings is stage managed. Questions have to be sent in advance, questions will be rejected if they risk embarrassing or hurting a council member’s feelings, and council staff read aloud carefully prepared answers that are written for the comprehension of a pre-schooler.

There’s no debate, it’s one way traffic, and you’d better like it. Just be grateful your question was read out and move along.

A Touch of Frost

This wall of secrecy is at odds with Hume City Council’s policy to be transparent which applies to councillors and council staff.

Among its stated aims is to: 

  • Ensure community availability of information used to inform council decision making
  • Increase confidence and trust in the community by fostering a culture of openness, transparency and accountability
  • Ensure access to information that is current, easily accessible and disseminated in a timely and consistent manner
  • Council Information will be made available on the Council Website, at the Council Offices and/or on request
  • In the interests of transparency, Council may, by resolution, determine to release information to the public even though it is confidential information
Sheena Frost, CEO, Hume City Council.
Sheena Frost, CEO, Hume City Council.

The council routinely fails on every point. It does not always make available information used to inform its decision making, and it frequently fails to ensure access to information in a timely manner, leading to a reduction in confidence and trust.

The person responsible for its public transparency policy is CEO Sheena Frost. She leads a council that protects itself with a ring-of-steel PR department.

We asked Ms Frost to comment. She responded saying she has been the CEO since July 2021, and that our questions have been sent to the council’s PR department.

On Friday 5 July council issued the following statement: “On 25 October 2021 council adopted the updated audit and risk Charter which included the “Removal of previous section 3.2.5 which related to section 66 of the Act.

“This section only applies to council meetings and delegated committees. The audit and risk committee does not fall into either category and its meetings are not required to be open to the public.

“This was in response to both confidentiality and privacy concerns that need to be carefully managed considering the sensitive nature of the reports the audit and risk committee receives in order to perform its role as an advisory committee to council.”

Frost was previously acting CEO of Casey Council, which has recently lost key members of staff to Hume City Council.

On Wednesday 3 July the council’s coordinator of risk management offered Sunbury Life all audit & risk committee agendas dating back to February 2022 if we paid council $32.70 – the standard fee for a request made under the freedom of information act.

Hume Council may well serve the people of Sunbury and Hume. But too many people at Hume Tower have forgotten they are also answerable to the people. Council documents are public documents, we paid for them and council committee meetings should be open to all.

All that’s needed to achieve this is a culture of openness, transparency, and accountability.