Code of silence

• Mayor Russell Aubrey—presides over councillors who are reluctant to voice their opinions publicly, for fear of being hauled before the WA local government standards panel.

WITH the draft code of conduct floating around, we asked Melville councillors for their thoughts on the new more prescriptive rules which list “deep sigh” and “shrugging shoulders” as examples of contravening behaviour (“Council bans deep sighs”, Herald, November 30, 2013).

Cr Clive Robartson: “I think some of the comments in it are a bit trite, like the rolling of eyes and the like. I think some are quite foolish and don’t need to be in a document of that nature. There has to be scope for a little bit of to and fro at times. The local government act makes it quite clear what needs to be in a code and it’s there to ensure that council acts in a proper manner and ensure that elected members and staff are respected.”

Cr Cameron Schuster and Cr Rebecca Aubrey both said they wouldn’t comment due to the code of conduct: “Unfortunately, if it’s a matter before council I’m not allowed to talk about it to the press,” Cr Aubrey, the mayor’s daughter, told the Herald. “The existing code of conduct, whether I like it or not, says if it’s on the council agenda we can’t raise an opinion on it,” Cr Schuster said.

Cr Richard Hill: “I’ve got no comment on that.” We asked if that was because of the code of conduct. “No. It’s not to do with anything.”

Cr Mark Reynolds says there’s been a lot of fuss over minor changes: “The changes to the code of conduct are, I think, really minimal. The code of conduct’s always existed and I think all that’s happened is a few more examples have been put in. It’s always been implied that certain actions were disrespectful.” The deputy mayor didn’t think councillors would be hauled in front of the local government standards panel just because they’d rolled their eyes once. He said it was his understanding the example behaviours would only be used to build evidence for the panel in case of a significant breach. “Shrugging and rolling eyes wouldn’t be used per se as a breach, they would just be used as a mountain of evidence if something major occurs, that’s my understanding.”

Cr Trish Phelan, back on council after an absence of some years, pointed out the examples were just up the back in the appendix, and there are very few changes in the body itself: “The draft is based on new legislation and regulations from the state government,” she says. “It’s a storm in a teacup in the sense that I don’t think there’s all that much change.” She doesn’t think banning the rolling of eyes or shrugging shoulders is too draconian, but says, “it was funny because a couple of friends of mine said I have to go into retraining. There’s a couple of people that make me roll my eyes and deeply sigh,” she chuckled.

Cr Duncan Macphail: “All it does is update it with respect to the law, the local government act requirements, and occupational health and safety. It’s about treating each other and officers with respect.”

Cr Robert Willis was likewise nonplussed: Some of the minutia of examples had “gone a bit overboard” but adds “it’s trying to bring a bit of harmony into the council”. “We certainly aren’t seeing good examples in federal and state government, and I can’t stand it, I can’t watch it because they’re so inappropriate in respect to each other.”

Cr Nick Pazolli has a range of concerns about the new code, having already fended off one referral to the local government standards panel, simply for producing a document about the council’s big cash reserves. He says the new rule saying “extreme caution should be exercised in expressing views on matters that may likely come before council at some future stage” is ludicrous and too restrictive. He says the code of conduct leads to poor decision-making because people can’t have a proper robust debate to arrive at good policy. He’s also concerned the mayor—who recently attempted but failed to take a violence restraining order out against him—will be able to use wide-ranging rules to crack down on dissent. Cr Pazolli says the mayor could “use the code of conduct as a weapon against any councillors who do not conform to his wishes, and I think that is counter-productive”.

Cr Susanne Taylor-Rees: “Personally I don’t feel a new code of conduct, whether it’s 30 pages or not, is going to address the lack of respect that’s levelled at some councillors.” The Herald pointed out to Cr Taylor-Rees it was often the mayor who sighed or rolled his eyes when she put her hand up to ask questions. At a recent meeting when Cr Taylor-Rees raised her hand the mayor asked, exasperated, “is it important?” “I just don’t think this is going to address the underlying issues, and that’s the lack of respect,” she says. Cr Taylor-Rees says when she was elected to council she never imagined the code of conduct would be so restrictive in what she was allowed to say.

We weren’t able to get in touch with Cr Nicole Foxton or Cr June Barton before deadline. We asked to talk to mayor Russell Aubrey but didn’t hear back from media handler Joanna Arbel.


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