Local democracy is fading away

By Shane Scanlan

City of Melbourne councillors are making only about a third of the number of public decisions they were making 10 years ago.

Between January and July this year, CBD News counted from minutes 131 decisions made in council and committee meetings. During the corresponding period in 2007, the number was 365.

Even Victoria’s smallest municipality, the Borough of Queenscliffe, records more publicly-made decisions than Melbourne.  Queenscliffe’s councillors made 148 decisions between January and July this year.

As a ratio of decisions to population, Queenscliffe locals are 100 times better represented than their Melbourne compatriots.  And this ratio doubles if you consider decisions per councillor numbers.

Queensliffe may not be an entirely fair comparator but the point is that the City of Melbourne has moved steadily over the decades to a corporate model where decisions are most likely to be either taken in secret or delegated to unelected officers.

As of last month, some 760 applications for planning permits had been lodged with the City of Melbourne.  Only a selected handful came to an open meetings for determination.  The opportunity for corruption has never been better.

A culture exists at the City of Melbourne where elected representatives are increasingly sidelined.  Anything remotely contentious is held in confidential session. And councillors face criminal charges if they reveal what’s said behind closed doors.

The council also routinely stymies freedom of information (FoI) requests and spends about $1 million per year on spin doctors.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle rejects any suggestion that participatory democracy is on the slide within the City of Melbourne.

Asked by CBD News about the significance of shrinking meeting agendas, he said: “The community satisfaction survey shows us at record highs in community engagement – far beyond any other council in Victoria. So I think that’s a pretty specious claim.”

“And, secondly, our agendas are, regrettably, pretty lumpy. You know, sometimes they are thin and sometimes, to our distress, they are pretty fat. And that’s just the nature of timing as things come through.”

“When you make that comment, there’s a little naivity of comparison in that.”

“Most councils meet once a month. Your council meets three times a month – with agendas that are pretty full most of the time.”

“I think in terms of meeting content, it would be difficult to find any other council in Victoria which deals with as many items as we do.”

The Borough of Queenscliffe Council meets once a month, but between January and July averaged 21.14 decisions per meeting.  The City of Melbourne’s average is 6.89 decisions from 19 meetings.

Looking back to the same time period in 2007, the City of Melbourne met 37 times and averaged 9.86 decisions per meeting.

Councillors are meeting less and are making fewer decisions.  And that, my friends, is bad for us all.

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