BY MICHAEL HITCH
Free speech takes a back seat in the Inner West Council as tensions brewed over alleged Facebook comments.
In a meeting on April 9, Inner West councillors voted to pass an amended Development Control Plan for Victoria Road in Marrickville. Point four of the amended control plan also calls for two of its councillors to “withdraw [their] comments and apologise”.
The motion, spearheaded by Mayor Darcy Byrne,* was the first agenda item for the meeting and called for Independent Councillor Pauline Lockie and Greens Councillor Collin Hesse to retract and apologise for Facebook comments made in July 2018.
The comments, one posted to Independent Councillor Pauline Lockie’s Facebook page by someone else, and the other posted by Councillor Hesse, alleged that Byrne and other councillors who voted for the development proposal were corrupt.
Greens Councillor, Rochelle Porteous said that the events of the meeting were unlawful and had prompted her to seek further advice and oversight.
“I have been working very closely with the Office of Local Government in order to seek further advice from them. We were very concerned about the legitimacy of the amendments that were being moved by the Mayor and I’ve followed up to seek a ruling for the office of local government.”
“I did state at the council meeting I was very concerned about the fact that it [the amended plan] didn’t adhere to the code of meeting practice so, it wasn’t a legal amendment to move.”
Exit Lockie and Hesse
At the April 9 meeting, both Councillors Hesse and Lockie left the meeting and excused themselves from voting after declaring a significant, pecuniary interest.
“Because I’ve now had the opportunity to seek legal advice in relation to this… that’s a significant pecuniary interest for me and I’ll exempt myself from the chamber for that vote,” Councillor Lockie said addressing the Mayor before the vote took place.
“I’m in a similar position, so unless it’s moved in seriatim, I’m in the same boat,” added Councillor Hesse.
Nonetheless, the motion was passed with six councillors in favour and five against.
The April 9 decision comes after a historic walkout at the previous 26 March meeting in which Mayor Byrne first requested a retraction and apology, leaving seven councillors in the room unable to vote on the matter.
However, Mayor Byrne’s prosecution of social media comments as “council misconduct” isn’t the only exercise of free speech that seems to be in his firing-line.
At the same April 9 meeting, the Inner West Council also passed a motion to adopt an amended Code of Meeting Practice, limiting the public’s time and ability to discuss matters during Council meetings.
In the new amendments, public attendees will only be permitted “to speak on no more than three items of business on the agenda,” and will have their three minutes of talking time “strictly enforced by the chairperson”.
With the vote coming to a tie, Mayor Byrne’s decision to use his casting vote to carry the motion, as well as to vote against further amendments to the code, raised eyebrows among many.
“By introducing the Code of Meeting Practice that the majority want, I think we are losing openness in our democracy, which is a seriously bad thing,” Councillor Hesse said when asked about the passing of the amended code.
“I think that this undermines the openness of decision making. It’s not of course that Council doesn’t make open decisions. It’s that being seen to do it by people in the gallery has an impact on the discussions Council has, which makes it more responsive to the community.”
*Darcy Byrne’s office was unable to comment on specific matters due to legal reasons.