Council pre-meetings concern the Ombudsman

The Ombudsman found that the real discussion takes place behind closed doors during the pre-meetings

Councils ‘rubber stamping’ decisions made at closed door ‘pre-meetings’ may be investigated by the Ombudsman

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:

Ombudsman slams Redland City Council

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:

Have your say on local government reforms

Submissions about councillor complaints laws

Redlands2030 – 25 October 2017

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2 thoughts on “Council pre-meetings concern the Ombudsman

  1. Even though the Redland Council Meetings are different from the Cairns ones in that conflicts of interests are discussed in the council meetings and that the workshops at which decisions are made a minuted. However there is a lack of transparency in the Redlands Council meetings. Despite the Freedom of Information request for access to the minutes of the workshops, a decision has not been made whether to grant access? Or is it that access has been granted but the decision as to what to provide access to has not been finalised?
    This is not providing information so that residents can draw their own conclusions about the quality of the decisions being made by councillors. It does not facilitate democracy.

  2. Pre-meetings or workshops have taken place in Redland City Council (RCC) just as they have in Cairns City Council and they are a way of determining a voting outcome before the formal council meeting has even taken place. There is a well known case at RCC of a formal meeting at which an important vote on infrastructure costs for new housing development was about to take place. Just prior to voting a number of councillors voted for a lunch break. That lunch break was attended by people who had accepted donations from developers. Twenty minutes later the vote was narrowly declared in favour of developers so in essence it was a win for developers and the bulk of infrastructure costs would now be paid by the rate payers of the Redlands. This is from a council that is meant to be acting in the best interests of the rate payers. Now we have an even more important case, which would have lasting impacts on both the residents and the wildlife if allowed to proceed. To date the details of the Toondah Harbour Proposal have been surrounded in secrecy and misleading artist’s impressions. Councillors have been instructed not to talk to the Media but already one of them has had a brief interview with Channel 7 and that was shown on the News that evening. The Walker Corporation makes no secret of the large donations they have given to certain councillors and to both sides of government. It is a multi-million dollar proposal but it is a commercial venture, which has little to do with either tourism or jobs, unless you consider that employing a half dozen people with heavy dredging machinery is a boost to jobs. We should note the people, who are supporting this proposed environmental disaster, and that includes both councillors and politicians.