Alan Tristram – Editorial

Ross Church 3Don’t do a U-turn on public speaking rights, Ross!

By Alan Tristram

Kapiti’s Mayor Ross Church thinks restricting public speaking time at KCDC meetings will make council meetings shorter and more  relevant.

I think this is a dangerous step which could severely hit democratic debate on the Coast.

Mayor Church seems to be targeting public speaking rights.

At a recent Council meeting, he suggested pubic speaking topics be restricted to items on the agenda.

He is also reported as saying concerned citizens could ‘engage with the council in other ways’ — by emailing, phoning and using the KCDC website.

Restricting democracy

We say: “Don’t go there Ross.” Why?

  • Public speaking time at the KCDC is covered intensively by the media. This is the ‘hidden’ factor in the argument. Lots of Council flaws have first been identified, then publicised as a result of public speaking time.
  • Alternatives suggested by the Mayor, emails for example, would not be subject to media scrutiny.
  • Key Council mistakes which were rectified because of public speaking publicity include: A KCDC plan to impose library charges; the signing away of a vital accessway to the beach at Raumati (181 Rosetta Road); and the botched coastal hazards LIM programme.
  • Some elected councillors act arrogantly — but speaking time forces them to ‘face the music’ of public criticism.
  • Public speaking was good enough for Mayors Iride McCloy, Alan Milne, and  Jenny Rowan.
  • A good chair can limit and control public speaking time.

I’m saying this Ross as a former KCDC councillor and Community Board member (2001–20007). I had to ‘sit and take’ some vitriolic criticism. And I can honestly say I think it did me good at times!

I always remember how the Paekakariki Community Board dealt with a Paekak. local — I’ll call him ‘Mr X’ — who used to get most upset and abusive at meetings. Often he was so upset he was incoherent.

The chair, the late Adrian Webster (an extraordinary good democrat as well as an exemplary chair) always arranged for Mr X, to be given a courteous, but limited, hearing on every occasion he appeared.

Adrian would then make sure that Mr X’s complaints were noted — and pursued at Council level if necessary. And the change in X’s behaviour was extraordinary — he was ‘inside the tent.’

Mr Mayor, you are on record as promising a more open council. I think you said you would even make yourself  available to the public in the front foyer of the new Civic building.

KIN says: This is great. But don’t throw out the baby out with the bathwater by restricting one of the great democratic traditions on the Kapiti Coast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

It is vital to have some sort of public forum that allows the public to openly raise matters of concern not least so they are put on public record. I am not convinced the current public speaking time is the best forum to achieve meaningful engagement.

Current public speaking is a very combative affair restricted to 3 minutes and precluding any questioning of responses which at times can be economical of fact. It certainly does not encourage rigorous debate and is very frustrating for both sides.

Restricting Council public speaking time to matters on the agenda ignores the fact that the CEO in consultation with the Committee chairs who in turn are advised by the respective Council manager decides (i.e. controls) the agendas for each meeting. Community Boards are similarly hobbled by Council managers and two Councillors who have voting rights.

My understanding is there is no scope for other issues to be raised by other Councillors unless there is majority support, which clearly given the current make up of Council precludes dissent.

(The Corporate approach of ‘You are with us or against us and if you are not with us you must be against us’ scenario).

There is no ‘any other business item’ on the agendas to raise other matters either.

Many issues are raised during speaking that do not get resolved or recur regularly because they have not been dealt with adequately, e.g. the pool ramp. So restricting public speaking to the specific meeting agenda would prevent these unresolved issues being raised at future meetings.

Given that many issues raised are not answered directly at meetings but await a 20 working day response from staff (which may not elicit an answer) by which time the issue no longer appears as a agenda item and so under the proposed system of restricting topics to the agenda could not be raised again.

The agendas are only loaded on the Council website a couple of days before each meeting which gives little time for the public to prepare material for consideration. (Why does it take 5 and half weeks to put the meeting minutes up on the website and to share the upcoming meeting agenda?)

Clearly the process is designed to close down the public and control what is discussed.

The Council, executive and staff are there to serve the public not control the public. The Council executive are there to serve the Councillors. The Councillors are there to serve the public. The Councillors role is to ensure proper Governance is maintained, i.e. ensure the executive carry out their duties by monitoring the actions, policies and decisions of the executive. They should be doing that by asking searching questions of the executive, not leaving it to the public to do so.

Proper Governance ensures that critical management information reaching Council is sufficiently complete, accurate and timely to enable appropriate management decision making, and provide the control mechanisms to ensure that strategies, directions and instructions from Council are carried out systematically and effectively.

(E M Forrester said “Democracy admits variety and …permits criticism”

Salman Rushdie said ” A mature society understands that at the heart of democracy is argument.”

Nails Bohr said ” The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.”

Lord Hailsham said ‘ I believe in freedom of expression as a primary right without which one cannot have as proper functioning democracy.)’

Agree wholeheartedly. Democracy is on the line here.

The public will recall the Mayor Ross Church’s election promises of ‘openness and transparency’ and ‘people before process’ and more recently ‘openness and transparency which I and this Council have stood for is not negotiable’.

Ross Church in his January Classic Torque article raised alternative options for the public other than through public speaking time. This against a background of raising the spectre of restricted public speaking.

1. Contact staff; Often the public bring issues to public speaking because they have failed to get an adequate response from contacting Council staff including from the executive.

2. Council website; This is badly set out, has a poor search facility, is not up to date, does not contain the necessary information, is difficult to locate the required information and contains ‘spin’ and economy of information of many subjects.

3. Contact Councillors; I recently e-mailed the majority of Councillors and Community Board members simply asking their view of the public speaking issue. Only 2 Councillors replied and 3 Community Board members. Previous experience of attempting contact via e-mail has generally resulted in a lack of a reply from Councillors.

4. Foyer Mayor; No one I know has ever seen the Mayor in the foyer or had the time to hang about waiting to meet him there.

5. Councillor clinics; When asked it appears only one Councillor (Tony Lloyd) holds clinics.

Current public speaking time is unsatisfactory for all parties. It is frustrating often lacks resolution and results in delayed responses. It is not conducive to constructive debate. It does not allow the public to question responses from Councillors or staff which frequently need to be challenged as to accuracy. A role that Councillors should be doing in terms of their Governance role but which they seem mostly incapable of doing, hence the public has to try and ask those questions and try and get answers.

Councillors clearly view public speaking time as time wasting when they have important matters, like passing motions, they want to get on with during their regular meetings. Meetings which appear often to lack any rigorous debate or questioning by Councillors. One Councillor has been overheard to comment ‘why do I have to listen to these stupid people’. I suggest there is a 1000 times more intellect within the community than there is within Council.

Participatory democracy within Kapiti Council could be built through opportunities for the public and Council to engage in a meaningful way involving respect, active listening, listening for contribution harnessing the breadth and depth of community knowledge and their experience in a positive way for the benefit of the community as a whole. Not battling against the community funded by the rates paid by that very community. We want our rates used for positive outcomes not legal defences.

I suggested at the last full Council meeting the following as a starter;

1. Set up regular individual Councillor clinics.

2. Set up regular informal Councillor only meetings that allow unfettered interaction with the public and meaningful constructive debate.

3. Revamp the Council website to make it interactive.

4. Require Councillors to respond to email within 20 working days as staff are supposed to do.

5. Set up and advertise special interest group forums on topics of specific interest and invite the public to attend and contribute.

6.Put Classic Torque on Facebook to enable responses to the Mayor without the involvement of the Communications. team.

7. Require committee meeting minutes to be put up on the website in a timely manner not 5 and a half weeks after the meeting. Publicise meeting agendas early not a couple of days beforehand

To make this happen requires, commitment to participatory democracy, genuine consultation, true openness and transparency, people before process, binning the spin doctors, honesty and integrity, Council to grasp the opportunity and accept the ups and downs of the process. The public to react positively through public forums suitably facilitated all with a commitment for a better way forward. Councillors to genuinely represent their constituents and not their own egos or self interests.
There is nothing like the blowtorch of transparency to ensure democracy.

The mayor and TPTB (the powers that be) are playing the same smoke and mirrors games on the sucker public as all governments do
From what I hear, under Church the public speaking time has turned into an ‘unpoliced’ free for all.
As a similie, currently in America there is a desire by TBTB to build an oil pipe line, the people don’t want it, so consequently there have been more rail disasters, with oil delivery trains ………. funny that
So we have our local branch of TPTB wanting an end to anything that exposes them for the frauds that they are, shutting down public debate, especially in these end times is just another step towards martial law.
Maybe Ross could trim his mustache to look the part?

Public speaking time at council meetings is truly part of democracy. It is a very important part of the process. It allows anyone the chance to have their say and to get involved. Whilst some may not be very articulate in getting their message across, we must always respect an individual’s right to have their chance to express their concerns.
Another part of the process is to make sure that council meetings are not over burdened with public speaking time for obvious reasons. This part of the process must be clearly laid out and defined.

There is a time and place for everything

Although I agree that time needs to be allotted for public speaking, restricting topics to only those that relate to what is on the agenda would open up the ability for more people to have their say on the day. Other issues could be completed at the appropriate meeting it relates to or even community board levels perhaps.

Engagement with Council

To suggest that the public could engage by way of emailing, phoning or using the council’s website (whatever that means) is not the same as having the chance to express your thoughts in public. Frustration would be the first word that came to mind using one of these as a solution. Public speaking time is all about the engagement and feeling involved.
Mayor Church, I am a ratepayer of Kāpiti and just an ordinary sort of person expressing his individual thoughts. I am hoping you will do the right thing by keeping intact one of the things you campaigned on, “Open Council”. And, remember what I said at the beginning, “Always think about what you campaigned on”, it’s a certainty to make your job a little easier and keep a whole lot of people happier.

Finally, you may not wish to be drawn into a debate through this medium but I am sure there are lots who would like a direct answer to this, so please tell us your thoughts/ideas, we look forward to your response.