312012May

Open versus Closed meetings – What happens behind closed doors?

My first ten or so days since swearing in have brought considerable interest in my voting intention relating to open or closed sessions of special budget meetings. You might be surprised to know that although I have voted for open session on most occasions I do not have “one size fits all” perspective on the matter.
First though, an explanation of “Open” versus “Closed” for those unsure. Each session of Council, and in fact each item of business, can have to it moved a procedural motion governing whether the public can observe discussion (in real-time, or minuted). A recommendation is made by the officers to Council, and the council can accept this recommendation or move to oppose it. The contents of each agenda or each item of business should inform the Council on this decision. If the Council determines by vote that the session is open, then all is revealed, and if closed, only those allowed to be present are witness to the discussion.
So far I’ve voted both ways on different items of business. I’m generally in favour of open session, unless I believe the ratepayer is better served by a closed session. Situations where this may occur could be when our commercial bargaining power could be reasonably considered to be reduced by open session (perhaps in the instance where office accommodation leases or potential property purchases are discussed) or in the case where negotiations regarding enterprise bargaining might be discussed. There are actually a few other examples I’ve come across even in this short time, and even times where I voted for open session but was glad the discussion was behind closed doors for the sake of my own vanity having asked what might be considered uninformed questions. I do know in my own business dealings revealing my exact willingness to pay might effect the bargaining power of a vendor I may be negotiating with, and in a game of cards with friends, it’s only in a game I’m confident I’ll win that I reveal my hand for my opponents. The sophisticated “game” of Council business, managing a $1.5billion budget, at times risks much on behalf of the ratepayer, for significant potential outcomes in their favour and when I believe they are better served by discussions behind closed doors that’s the way you’ll see me vote.
However, I’m pragmatic about the nature of Council business and the reality of confidentiality, or lack thereof. In many cases our hand is revealed regardless of our voting intention and so, in many cases where at first glance closed session might be the preferred option the value of transparency and openness might outweigh any potential bargaining power gained by secrecy. This is actually the case in most instances, in my opinion. I’ve been advocating for this among my colleagues. The special budget meetings recently held have contained robust discussion on many topics in the public interest and I think it’s a shame we haven’t allowed the witness of the public to see how hard many of us are working to reduce rates for residents. There are also unhelpful moments, where a Councillor may advocate for a project (or against a project) on a political platform with clearly polarising public sentiment on the matter and confrontation occurs. However, even in these difficult moments the public can see their elected representative speak on their behalf, or on behalf of their opponent, and can pass judgement on their ability to do their job. This is a valuable exercise.
What is less valuable is the media’s representation of the debate at times, when opinions are presented as facts and the accountable party, the Councillor, is expected to defend that which isn’t even the issue. This is a waste of resources and a shame. The people of the Gold Coast are a clever bunch though and I hope they see through this sensationalism of current affairs. I also hope the media moves to better and more accurate reporting of events and attempts to take opportunities to rally rational debate around topics rather than unnecessarily polarise the public on an issue.
I’ll continue to vote for open sessions, after careful consideration, whenever that transaction I’ve discussed above favours the Gold Coast (and particularly Division 9) resident and the future of the city I love.

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