Residents object to Glen Eira council’s question time limit

Joy Joshi

The Glen Eira Residents’ Association (GERA) has expressed resentment over a recent motion passed by the council of Glen Eira, which limits public participation during council meetings.

The newly introduced limitations in the local law require any member of the public to be physically present in the council meetings in order to raise a question.

The law doesn’t allow any more than two questions per person, which must be submitted no later than 12 noon the day before the council meets.

Residents of Glen Eira, in Melbourne's east, are limited to two questions during council meetings. Photo: Adrian Tritschler
Residents of Glen Eira, in Melbourne’s east, are limited to two questions during council meetings. Photo: Adrian Tritschler

The president of GERA, Bette Hatfield, was clear in her disapproval of the new resolution.

“GERA disagrees with the new rules in public questions since we believe that these new rules do nothing but deter the residents and ratepayers from using a valid formal process for asking questions of their elected representatives,” said Mrs Hatfield.

She believes the motion reduces the power of people and allows the acts of council to go unchecked.

“Since the Council has no sitting opposition and receives scant media coverage, the residents have few options other than public questions to get both their question and Council’s response publicly acknowledged and recorded in Council Minutes,” she said.

The association feels public questioning during the council meetings already serves as the “last resort” of approaching the council, only after letters and discussions with the councillors have failed to produce a satisfactory result.

Although the council was successful in passing the resolution, it did receive criticism from a minority of councillors.

Councillor Mary Delahunty of the Camden Ward, who stood against the resolution, called it “sending us back to the dark ages.”

“I do not think that there should be limitations on people exercising their democracy as limiting public participation is a retrograde step,” said Councillor Delahunty.

“Neither do i think that it should be different between different municipalities. I would like the state government to make a blanket rule for public participation in the meetings.”

Residents’ association president Bette Hatfield shared the same ground with Councillor Delahunty and called the limit on public questions an “additional impediment” to obtaining information.

“It does not challenge freedom of expression because we are still allowed to make an argument, it has just been made harder for us to do so,” said Mrs Hatfield.

Glen Eira council chambers. Photo: Joy Joshi
Glen Eira council chambers. Photo: Joy Joshi

The majority of councillors who voted in favour of the motion included Councillor Michael Lipshutz, who in an interview with the Leader newspaper said that public time had been used to “embarrass” the council.

He was backed by Councillor Jamie Hyams, who said that public question time could be seen as “a public version of trolling.”

In response to these assertions, Councillor Delahunty said, “the council does a pretty good job of embarrassing itself sometimes. Just because the public calls us to account on that does not mean that they are at fault.”

“It means that we are at fault. The ones who make such statements should share their experience first.”

Mrs Hatfield said the claims by Councillor Lipshutz and Councillor Hyams were “absurd.”

According to her the majority of public questions are related to valid concerns raised by residents or are requests for additional information that council has otherwise not provided.

“Such a justification impinges on the rights of all residents,” said the unhappy president of GERA.

Suggesting certain steps that could be taken by the public to repeal the currently active law, Councillor Delahunty suggested that before upcoming council elections a good amount of public pressure on the council could help bring control back into the hands of residents.

“We have elections on 22nd October. I hope the new council ministers will consider this issue as their utmost priority and turn things around by the first half of the coming year,” she said.

“It will be their responsibility to make people understand the role of a local law. Once the law goes out for consultation, then the public must participate in that consultation,”

Mrs Hatfield added that “lobbying” the council and the representatives will help her residents’ association maintain significant pressure.

“If you want to get any decision made by the council, then you need support to contact the government and present your argument,” she said.