Free Speech – Risk Free, or is it?

As a City of Kalamunda Local Government Councillor, I have been challenged with how to respond on issues of heightened community concern, sometimes quickly escalating through public discussion and the media.  One of these issues arose last week.

As a Councillor, I felt the need to act on a incident related to fox trapping.  A practice which led to a pet being caught in a metal sprung trap and being seriously injured.   The owner was also highly distressed by the event.   As the news unfolded, there was understandable outrage from the community as the trap had been set in a popular, suburban sporting reserve, frequented by residents, children and their pets and adjacent to a primary school.  The risk of community exposure to these buried traps appeared now to be unacceptable.  The matter quickly hit the media and made headline news.

My response has been to propose a motion to Council – which will be considered on 26 June 2018 – seeking the removal of these traps from sporting reserves, questioning the effectiveness of the fox control program and seeking alternate, safer options for fox control that reduces the risk of exposure to the community.  The motion has been received well by some quarters of the community, and has sparked further media interest.   As a Councillor, and as Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee, I have an obligation to oversee operational performance and verify effectiveness on behalf of ratepayers.  This is my intent.

However, in responding to inquiries I am now advised that no Councillor shall speak directly with the media.  That contact with the media is against the provisions of the Local Government Act 1995 (LGA), the City’s Code of Conduct for Elected Members (Code) and contrary to Councillor induction training.

So I asked myself – is it?  And if it is – should it be?

To the first point – s. 2.8(1)(d) of LGA states that the role of the mayor is to speak “on behalf of the local government”.

In that interpretation – the Mayor (or CEO as delegated) may speak on behalf of the local government.  The “local government” in this instance is the City of Kalamunda – the organisation established under the LGA.  The “local government” is not City’s community, its residents or the electors.

While LGA s.2.10 (a) states a Councillor shall represent “the interests of electors, ratepayers and residents”, (b) provides “leadership and guidance to the community” and (d) “facilitate communication between the community and the council”.

So then, who is speaking on behalf of our electors, our community and our constituents?  Are we not elected as Councillors to provide them with that voice?  I believe we are, and that the local government does not, and could not, usurp that authority.

We have a role to facilitate communication.  The motion I have moved is a means of facilitating communication between the communities need for change, and a Council decision to direct the local government to deliver that change.  To ensure we have broad support, does that not include having open and transparent discussions, to inform, to listen and respond – through all reasonable means?  When it comes to a serious, safety risk – should we not be speaking up, should we not be taking action?

The Code itself is also reasonably clear on when a Councillor may speak to the media.  It is not prohibitive.  It states that “Only the Shire President [Mayor] or the CEO if the Shire President agrees, can speak on behalf of the Shire.” [Their emphasis].

And further, “Unless otherwise authorised to do so, Elected Members [or Employees] who make public statements express them as opinions only, which do not necessarily represent the Shire’s [City’s] position”.  I agree, the motion is yet to go to Council so it does not have a position – that is what I am aiming to achieve.

So let’s be clear – any discussions I have or will have with the media shall be my own opinion, and I make them in the best interests of meeting my role as a Councillor under the LGA.  I make them as an elected representative of our community, consistent with our Australian democratic process.

So to my questions above – I think the legislation and code are clear on when and how Councillors may speak to the media.  As it should be.

“There is some risk involved in action, there always is. But there is far more risk in failure to act.”  Harry S. Truman

3 Comments

  1. I agree with you Tracy. And what a great quote to finish with.
    Risk can be a driver, hindrance or thrill. In this case the Council wants a uniform front, PR managed and controlled. When Councillors cannot speak the whole community suffers. Thanks again for putting this to Council 🙂

    Like

  2. Outrageous. It’s understandable that employees of government at all levels should have restrictions on speaking to the media and distance themselves from their employer on social media. It would not be right to have their personal opinions mistaken for the organisation’s official view. But you are an elected representative, your job is to represent the views of your constituents, not the mayor or the council majority. You have a right and indeed an obligation to speak publicly on important issues. The truth will not be silenced!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article and well written. What is the point of having an elected member on council if they cannot publicly express the concerns of ratepayers? Accountability and transparency are what’s needed here.

    Liked by 1 person

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