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STAGE 4: MAKING THE DECISION

The fourth stage of the process is when councillors finally make the decision. This happens at formal council meetings as defined by the Local Government Act 1989.

OPEN AND CLOSED COUNCIL MEETINGS

Council meetings are open to the public. There are, however, certain circumstances which are described in Section 89 (2) of the Act, when a council meeting may be closed. This should be avoided when possible to preserve transparency and accountability – the key aspects of good governance.

Meetings should be conducted in a way that clearly reinforces the reason why they are open to the public. That is, council meetings allow the public to be informed and, where appropriate, involved in the government of their community.

GOOD GOVERNANCE AND COUNCIL MEETING PROCEDURES

Councils are required to have a local law which covers meeting procedures. These laws are generally based on well-accepted procedures that are intended to ensure meetings are run fairly and productively. All councillors should be familiar with their council’s local law.

While these local laws provide a broad framework for running orderly and constructive meetings, good governance processes add meaning to the framework. They ensure meetings are run in such a way that helps good decision-making.

A well-run meeting should have a clear and informative agenda, be well chaired and facilitated, follow meeting procedures appropriately, and adhere to statutory requirements.

Exhibiting good conduct in council meetings

The meetings local law is intended to help the mayor chair and manage the meeting. However it is the responsibility of individual councillors to exhibit good conduct in meetings. The mayor should not have to spend time enforcing good behaviour.

Councillors should listen while others are speaking, avoid interrupting, use reasonable and temperate language in debates (no matter how contentious the topic may be), and refrain from texting or tweeting during meetings.

When councillors behave in this way, it helps to maintain public respect for the council in particular, and local government in general. See the Conduct section for more information.

Leading meetings with skill and impartiality

The mayor can facilitate good decision-making through skilful chairing of the council meeting. The role of the mayor is particularly important in making councillors feel that they are part of the process by ensuring they have the opportunity to get their viewpoint across.

Mayors should be very familiar with the council meetings local law so that they are confident in chairing meetings and making rulings where necessary.

Having a strong position on a specific issue while chairing the debate on that issue can represent slightly conflicting roles. However, as long as the mayor ensures that all councillors have the opportunity to express their views and manages other aspects of the meeting fairly, this does not have to be a problem.

In these circumstances, the mayor should ideally not be an active participant in the debate, but should instead focus on managing the issue through to a decision. If the mayor feels the need to express a particular view, this can happen after all the other councillors have had their chance to state their opinion, and before the matter is put to the vote. If the mayor wishes to play an active part in the debate, then he or she should consider vacating the chair for that item.

Focussing debate on the issues

Robust debates about complex issues are a feature of a healthy democracy. However, it is important for good governance and for the reputation of local government that debates focus on the content of issues, not on the councillors debating them (or the officers providing advice on them). ‘Playing the ball, not the person’ is a very important part of good governance in council meetings.

Every council has a Councillor Code of Conduct which require councillors to treat each other with respect. They shouldn’t simply do this because they have to, but because that’s how they’d like to be treated themselves. Good behaviour especially during debates makes for better governance and a better all-round experience of being involved in local government.

Treating advice with respect

Apart from the information and advice received in council briefings councillors are also provided with advice at meetings via council reports or presentations from officers who attend the meeting. Councillors are not required to follow the advice, but nevertheless should consider it with due respect.

It’s good practice, particularly for complex issues, if officers introduce their reports themselves. This enables a body of information including the relevant facts, options and advice to be articulated at the meeting, prior to the debate commencing. This provides a good platform for the debate which necessarily involves opinions, interpretations, statements of values, and so on.

Taking voting seriously

Councillors are elected for the primary purpose of making decisions on behalf of the community. It’s therefore important that councillors take this role seriously, actively participating in all aspects of the meeting. This means:

  • reading officer reports and related documentation
  • attending formal council meetings and other related meetings, such as councillor briefings
  • participating in debate and discussion of matters affecting the community
  • voting on all matters, except where there is a conflict of interest.

From a good governance perspective even complex and difficult issues should be worked through until councillors are able to make a decision. Communities will expect their councillors to vote because they have been elected to participate in the decision-making process.

Recent legislative changes mean that it is no longer mandatory for a councillor to vote on an issue (in which conflict of interest does not apply). This invites individuals to deliberately abstain from participating in a decision of the council. In any case, for a motion to be adopted, a majority of councillors present must vote for it.  So a failure to vote becomes in effect a vote against the motion if sufficient councillors do not vote. For example, if eight councillors are present at a meeting, a motion must attract at least five votes (or four votes plus the Chairperson’s casting vote) in favour in order for it to be adopted. If a majority of councillors present do not vote, the motion fails even if a majority of those who did vote, voted in favour).

Committing to transparency

Council meetings should be characterised by transparency. This means that observers can follow and understand the decision-making process and the reasons why a particular decision has been made. This not only helps support accountability, but also keeps legislators and administrators honest. Transparent processes are usually good processes because they stand up to scrutiny. See Why is good governance important? for more information.

Holding the meeting in public is one way that transparency can be achieved. Having a proper debate is another. By observing a debate, onlookers are able to see how and why council came to make a decision.

This does not mean that all decisions will be made in public. Some decisions need to be made in camera (that is, closed to the public) for legal or commercial-in-confidence reasons, or because a privacy or council staff matter is being considered.

Using notices of motion appropriately

From time to time, councillors use notices of motion to raise issues in a public forum (the council meeting).

When councillors want to formally let their colleagues know that they intend to move a particular matter at an upcoming meeting, they will do this via a notice of motion (however titled). Councils will have a procedure incorporated into their meetings local law for this to occur.

This can be a useful way for a councillor to raise an issue, which doesn’t require advice or a lot of consideration on a council agenda. For example, it might involve asking the council to recognise a significant achievement of a local community member which is already generally well-known.

The downside of using notices of motion for significant issues is that it doesn’t generally allow the second (gathering information) and third stages (forming an opinion) of the decision-making process to work effectively. If a notice of motion is seeking a decision, this doesn’t allow adequate time for advice to be provided or for councillors to consider and determine what extra information they may need. If a councillor uses a notice of motion for a significant item, it‘s best that the motion request a report for a subsequent meeting.

Understanding the nature of urgent business

Like notices of motion, councillors sometimes use urgent business as a way to get things onto the agenda. Urgent business has a particular purpose on council meeting agendas. It is there for issues that have arisen since the agenda was published, urgently require council’s attention, but can’t be safely held over until the next meeting. This decision is usually made by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in consultation with the mayor.

Urgent business should only ever be used for this purpose. It is the urgency of the matter, as determined by the CEO and mayor, that justifies the sidestepping of normal decision-making processes.

FACT

“Playing the ball, not the person is important for good governance in council meetings.”

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