The Queensland Ombudsman says local councils may be acting illegally by having closed door preliminary meetings to decide how councillors will vote at formal meetings.
These concerns were expressed in the Ombudsman’s recent investigative report into the Cairns Regional Council.
The Ombudsman found that it was the Cairns council’s practice to have a pre-meeting meeting on the Monday before a formal Council meeting on a Wednesday. He said:
During the pre-meeting meeting, all agenda items are discussed, any questions raised and an understanding reached as to how councillors will vote at the Wednesday meeting. Minutes are not taken at the pre-meeting meeting.
Cairns Regional councillors told the ombudsman that the pre-meeting meant that public disagreements were avoided. In his report the Ombudsman said:
One councillor noted that in five years (since the 2012 election) they had never read in the newspaper about a dispute in council chambers and that is because there is never a dispute in council chambers. They advised that most matters go to the meeting with all councillors knowing how it is going to turn out and referred to the business being run with discipline, saying that councillors do not aim to embarrass each other. Another councillor commented that councillors have a policy of not having fights or disagreements in public because the press ‘play it up for more than it is’. Another talked about the importance of not looking like ‘rabble’ in the house.
The Ombudsman found that the real discussion regarding each item of council business takes place behind closed doors during the pre-meeting meeting and:
What happens in the council chamber, for the benefit of the public, could therefore be described as a presentation of the conclusion reached following that discussion.
The Ombudsman said
In my view, this practice places council at significant risk of failing to comply with the local government principle of ‘transparent and effective processes, and decision-making in the public interest’
He went on to say that this is an issue that may in the future be the subject of a separate investigation either in respect of council or more broadly.
What about Redland City Council pre-meetings ?
The practices described by the Ombudsman appear to have been operating for some time at Redland City Council.
At Council general meetings it is quite common for councillors to refer to matters which they discussed “yesterday” at their pre-meeting.
It is understood that on many occasions matters have been actually voted on and decided at pre-meetings and other non-public meetings known as “workshops”.
Differences between the Cairns and Redlands councils
There are a couple of interesting differences between the way Cairns and Redlands run their behind closed door pre-meetings.
The Ombudsman found that the Cairns council does not keep minutes of its pre-meetings.
Redland City Council has kept minutes of its pre-meetings, at least it did until Redlands2030 submitted a Right to Information (RTI) request for copies of the minutes. This request is still being reviewed by the Office of the Information Commissioner.
The second difference is that Cairns councillors told the Ombudsman that conflicts of interest are discussed and disclosed during their undocumented pre-meetings.
Redlands2030 understands that at Redland City Council conflicts of interest are only discussed during formal Council meetings and not at workshops or pre-meetings. This issue was discussed in Mayors and ethics: a tale of two cities.
Things to do
When the Ombudsman investigates the practice of local councils having pre-meetings he should include Redland City Council in the list of councils to be examined.
Redland City Council should be well known to the Ombudsman – he raised concerns earlier this year about lack of integrity in the council’s decision making in The Redland City Council Defamation Report. This report was discussed in:
Meanwhile, Redlands residents have until Thursday 2:00pm to comment on laws about local council decision making to a committee of the Queensland Parliament. Submissions can be made on laws dealing with conflicts of interest, political donations and the process of making complaints about local councillors, as explained in the following posts: