By ALLISON HORE
Technical issues, conflict and cancellations turned the first in-person Inner West council meeting in 13 months into an “embarrassment.”
With over 40 issues on the agenda, the council meeting on Tuesday 13th of April was set to be a big one. The meeting took place in the Inner West Council’s headquarters in Ashfield and the public were invited to attend.
But only 10 items into the agenda, the meeting was forced to be abandoned when councillor Julie Passas refused to leave the chamber after a vote to eject her. During a discussion of harmonisation of aquatic center fees, Ms. Passas was asked to “turn the temperature down” while she was arguing entry prices for swimming pools in the area were too high.
Mayor Darcy Byrne said the tone Ms. Passas was using was “aggressive” and, following several interjections from Ms. Passas and a number of official warnings, he put forward a motion to remove her from the meeting. The vote passed, but Ms. Passas refused to leave.
“I respectfully ask you leave the meeting,” Mr. Byrne said.
“And I respectfully request you call the police and remove me …. I will not be leaving,” Cr. Passas replied.
Mr. Byrne refused to call police and asked for the meeting to be adjourned until Ms. Passas left. Council then tried to continue the meeting in a different room, but Ms. Passas followed. The remainder of the agenda was postponed.
But the problems began before the meeting even started, with “technical issues” meaning the meeting could not be livestreamed by curious members of the public.
And the technology wasn’t much better for those who showed up in-person either. Independent councillor John Stamolis told the Inner West Independent microphones for the councillors were not working, so a single microphone had to be passed around the room. He slammed the technical issues as “low grade.”
“For goodness sake, we spend $15 million on a IT system and we’re in the dark ages,” he said.
“Every other council is ready, every other council is operating, every other council in NSW is working. We have the most expensive IT system and we couldn’t get it working.”
Motions against the mayor
Among the 41 items on the agenda were two controversial motions against the mayor.
One motion, put forward by Greens councillor Colin Hesse, called on Mayor Byrne to withdraw his request the auditor general investigate council staff over their handling of the Dawn Fraser baths refurbishment. Mr. Hesse said the mayor’s decision to report council to the auditor general has led to “further disharmony between senior staff and the elected Councillors.”
The other hot motion on the agenda was one put forward by councillor Passas calling on the mayor to step down. Cited in the motion was the Dawny debacle, a lack of communication between the mayor and other councillors and the ongoing investigation of Mr. Byrne by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Ms. Passas said she believed the mayor’s move to eject her from the meeting was a “concerted effort” to quash her motion, which was item 37 on the agenda. She said other councillors who had frequently interjected throughout the meeting were not asked to leave.
Although Ms. Passas is a contentious figure in council, with a history of questionable and unlawful behaviour of her own, Mr. Stamolis claims her motion would have had majority support from councillors. He said her interjections and behaviour in Tuesday’s meeting were no different from previous meetings.
“It was a very convenient night not to have IT and webcast, wasn’t it, and to kick Julie out. It was a very convenient night to do this,” he said.
“I can tell you right now, a majority of councillors would feel that Darcy should step aside. No question about that.”
Legally, council can call for the mayor to stand down but it has no legal capacity to force the mayor to do so. But a motion for him to stand down supported by the majority of council would “send a strong signal,” says Mr. Stamolis.
When asked about the motion, and whether that motivated his move to remove Ms. Passas from the meeting and call for the Liberal party to disendorse her, Mr. Byrne denied it. He said Passas’s motion was motivated by party politics rather than genuine concern about his performance.
“Councillor Passas is seeking to have me removed as Mayor because I have been a vociferous critic of the Berejiklian Government’s $252 million Council grants slush fund,” he told the Independent.
“She is seeking to have me replaced by Councillor Macri, who is aligned to the Liberal Party, because she doesn’t like having a Mayor who speaks out against the shocking rorts committed by the Liberal Government in NSW.”
Following Tuesday’s council meeting chaos some members of the community have questioned whether council actually has the time to address all the crucial items on the agenda.
Last year council moved to change their meeting schedule from twice a month to once a month. Councillor Pauline Lockie, who supported the change, hoped the new schedule would leave more time for changes to be implemented.
“I’ve been concerned for some time now that our meetings haven’t been effective or efficient when it comes to delivering the best outcomes for our community,” she said.
“The previous schedule left [Council staff] little time to implement decisions, or brief Councillors on matters of strategic importance.”
But Mr. Stamolis said the reduced number of meetings meant issues were not being discussed in full detail, if they make it to the table at all.
“I’m appalled by the fact the council would reduce its workload by half. You could see on the agenda there were 41 items, so all we’re doing is ticking boxes very fast,” he said.
A new meeting date to address the remaining items on the agenda, including Ms. Passas’s motion is yet to be set.