MEMBERS of the public who attend Kingston Council meetings to watch councillors debate and vote on council matters may be filmed in future in the wake of a turbulent planning meeting last month.
Cheers, jeers and dissent from the public gallery accompanied councillors’ debate on the contentious completion of the Bay Trail shared cycling and walking track from Mentone Life Saving Club to Parkdale’s Rennison St at a planning meeting on the evening of Wednesday 24 January.
At the subsequent regular monthly public council meeting held on 29 January, South ward councillor Georgina Oxley won support, after much debate, from fellow councillors to have council officers look at the possibility of recording the public gallery at council meetings.
Cr Oxley said some people had contacted her after the planning meeting saying they had safety concerns about attending meetings open to the public in the council chamber.
“The safety of everyone here is something I think we should all be concerned about,” she said at the 29 January meeting.
Central ward councillor Ron Brownlees disagreed and said he had seen “much worse” at council meetings during his decades in public office.
“Sure there’s argy-bargy that goes on and you hear the gallery laugh and make interjections, and you give it back, but I can’t see where anyone is feeling threatened in terms of their physical or mental welling,” he said.
Cr Oxley said she saw behaviour by some people in the gallery when the Bay Trail debate was underway acted in a way that “was at best disruptive, and at worst absolutely disgraceful”.
“As councillors tried to speak to items on the agenda, members in the gallery were jeering and yelling.”
She said submitters about the Bay Trail construction were also “jeered at and abused and called vile names to rude to repeat in this chamber”.
“Visitors to our council chamber need to be respectful of the people here and the decisions and processes that occur in this chamber that are fundamental to our democracy,” Cr Oxley said.
“And most do but some members of the gallery hide amongst a crowd which, in my books, is almost as bad as having a fake Facebook profile and spreading hate behind a keyboard and it is just as cowardly.”
Debate about the Bay Trail has been marred online to such an extent that Mordialloc Labor MP Tim Richardson raised the subject in Parliament in September last year.
“I have been greatly concerned about the standard of debate on this issue and the comments made about a female councillor in recent months on an anonymous Facebook page,” Mr Richardson said in Parliament.
“Everyone has the right in a democracy to put forward their views in a passionate and respectful way and to put forward their case. What is not acceptable is the deeply hurtful and personal attacks.”
The comments on Facebook are understood to have been directed at Central ward councillor Rosemary West.
At the 29 January meeting, Cr West said she knew people who are “intimidated” about attending meetings about the Bay Trail due to behaviour at previous meetings debating the matter.
“I think our local democracy is under threat from the people who last week were abusing councillors and also members of the public in the gallery,” she said.
Cr Ron Brownlees denied abusing any members of the public gallery at the planning meeting on 24 January.
“I made no contact with anyone in that gallery either before or after the meeting except when a member of that gallery, who is on the tape, has had a go at me. I think I invited the person if they didn’t like what they heard to leave the room.
“Now if that’s feeling intimidated or feeling uncomfortable I really wonder where we’re going. I’m thinking “hang on, kindergarten or primary school or high school”. We’re all adults and should behave as adults.”
Cr Brownlees said he does not worry about what is yelled out at him.
“You’ve got to have a thick skin and you’ve got to wear that … that’s part of life.”
The mayor Cr Steve Staikos advised Cr Brownlees to make comments through the chair of the meeting at the time of the exchange between the councillor and the anonymous member of the public.
Council general manager Jonathan Guttman indicated at the 29 January meeting that council will likely need to get legal advice about filming members of the public in the council chamber as part of the council officers’ report.
Councillors unanimously voted to have council officers prepare a report on the possibility of filming attendees in the public gallery at council meetings.
Councillors voted 5-4 to narrow Beach Rd in part along the three-kilometre “missing link” of the Bay Trail between Mentone and Parkdale “to save foreshore vegetation”.
Crs Tamsin Bearsley, Brownlees, Geoff Gledhill and George Hua voted against the plan. Crs Staikos, West, David Eden, Tamara Barth and Oxley supported the Beach Rd realignment.
Objectors to the road narrowing, which will be within VicRoads guidelines, have concerns about motorists and cyclists’ safety on Beach Rd after the narrowing of the road is complete.
This article was amended on 8 February to confirm the councillors’ vote to investigate the possibility of filming the public gallery was unanimous and not a split 5-4 vote as originally reported.