TENSION between councillors erupted into the open at a Frankston Council meeting last week.
The first monthly meeting of the year last Monday evening had to be halted for about 10 minutes after councillors began shouting at each other across the council chambers amid “bullying” allegations.
The mayor, Cr Sandra Mayer, adjourned the meeting and councillors gathered in a room at the back of the chambers behind closed doors to continue their argument away from public view.
Raised voices could be heard from the room for several minutes during the meeting break.
Councillors were discussing their attendance at meetings and briefings when accusations about “bullying” began to fly.
Cr Colin Hampton said “there are councillors who aren’t turning up for briefings and it’s not just one. It’s two or three or four.”
Councillor briefings are held so council staff can provide information and background on issues or projects to be debated and voted on at public council meetings.
“You can’t make informed decisions … if you come in cold and don’t understand the issues,” Cr Hampton said.
Cr Glenn Aitken then lit the fuse that sparked arguments between councillors.
“If you are elected to council, if you take the role seriously in this city, you’re supposed to be representing your community and you are being paid over $2000 every four bloody weeks then you should work for it and not freeload or piggyback on this city,” he told the meeting.
Cr Mayer, chairing the meeting, agreed “it’s unfair for other councillors to be carrying people and attending all the meetings while others don’t.”
However, Cr Suzette Tayler claimed “many councillors here feel bullied now and again”.
She said newly elected first-term councillors had been told by longer serving councillors “they don’t have a right to speak because they don’t have the experience”.
“That’s a load of rubbish,” Cr Tayler said. “Every one of them is elected, they have a right to speak.”
Cr Mayer adjourned the meeting as claim and counter claim about bullying then echoed around the council chambers.
After the 10-minute break in proceedings, during which heated discussions could be heard between councillors behind closed doors, the nine councillors returned to their seats and finished the meeting.
When contacted by The Times, first-term councillor Cr Michael O’Reilly said there is often “intimidating behaviour at briefings”.
“This causes people to not want to come to these briefings,” he said.
“Many times it can be very aggressive and it is completely unprofessional.
“The behaviour gets swept under the carpet.”
Cr O’Reilly said complaints about councillors’ behaviour are ignored.
Cr Rebekah Spelman, also a first-term councillor, said it is “pretty disappointing” that longer-term councillors “seem to think” those with less time on council under their belt have opinions “that are unworthy if you disagree with them”.
“There is a lot of bullying that goes on behind closed doors,” she said.
“It’s a toxic environment, it’s all about ego and power tripping.”
Cr Spelman said some councillors, although not herself, had chosen not to attend briefings due to “bullying”.
Cr Aitken told The Times he believed “questions need to be asked” if councillors do not turn up to meetings and “are not visible in their community”.
“I find it offensive that some people are doing virtually nothing and are piggybacking on the work of other people and are freeloading on the citizens of Frankston who pay their rates,” he said.
Cr Aitken denied longer-term councillors tried to silence first-term councillors.
“Everyone’s opinion is valuable from my point of view. I don’t care how long a person has been there. I judge people on their merit and I don’t care if it’s man, woman, young or elderly.”
Cr Hampton called the bullying allegations “a joke”.
“I’ve never known anyone to be told to be quiet and not to say anything. There is obviously robust debate and so there should be,” he said.
“If someone has a different point of view than you then you have to grin and bear it.”
He said councillors who do not attend briefings “are shirking their responsibility”.
Cr Hampton said “as soon as you disagree with certain councillors they call it bullying”.
Cr Tayler believes longer serving councillors “should accept all councillors elected have the right to be involved in the decision-making for the City of Frankston” since they are elected by the community.
“Those councillors believe their opinion is the only one and it’s not.”
The Mayor, Cr Sandra Mayer, said she is responsible for chairing council meetings and managing councillors’ behaviour.
“I wouldn’t allow someone else to say ‘your opinion doesn’t count’ and if it was I’d be having a word with that councillor.”
She said the word bullying is “thrown around lightly” although “if they feel bullied then that is how the feel”.
The mayor said she would step in and insist on mediation if a bullying complaint is lodged.
Cr Mayer said there had been no official complaints of bullying by councillors.
“There’s always informal discussions where someone might say ‘I didn’t like what someone said to me’…but that’s just a normal part of politics.
“There are going to be personality clashes.”
Frankston councillors have been divided behind the scenes for at least several months.
Some public indication of the makeup of the divided councillors’ camps was given when Cr Mayer was narrowly voted in as mayor late last year.
Crs Aitken, Brian Cunial, James Dooley and Hampton voted for Cr Mayer while Crs O’Reilly, Darrel Taylor and Tayler backed Cr Spelman.
On Friday Cr Aitken said councillors should be made to meet “minimum performance standards”.
“I’ve decided to lodge a notice of motion that we [Frankston Council] write to the Minister for Local Government asking for a provision or clause to be added to the Local Government Act to ensure councillors perform to a certain degree – minimum performance standards,” he said.
He had invited the mayor, CEO and some other council officers to look at the wording of his proposed motion “so it may be changed by the time it’s on the [February] agenda, but the intent and spirit will still be there”.