A CLOSED meeting between councillors last month was not aimed at restricting councillors’ freedom of speech according to Frankston mayor Cr James Dooley.
The mayor told The Times a mid-week meeting between councillors called at short notice last month mainly focused on discussions around how councillors can best communicate on online social media sites such as Facebook without bringing council into disrepute (‘Hidden agenda for secret council meeting’, The Times 20/6/16).
The Special Meeting was not listed on council’s website and no agenda was released to the public before the meeting.
Cr Dooley said the mayor and CEO are officially the spokespeople of council and while councillors are free to express personal opinions they must make this clear especially when commenting about council policies or “operational matters” online.
“It can be inferred they’re speaking on behalf of council [online],” Cr Dooley said.
“Short sentences are used and things can be taken out of context.”
He noted federal and state laws and the Local Government Act have not kept up with the rapid rise of online discourse and its potential legal ramifications.
“We decided to look at what other councils do and ask ourselves ‘how do we deal with this?’,” Cr Dooley said.
At last month’s public council meeting Cr Brian Cunial pushed for the council decision from last month’s Special Meeting to be publicly released “in the interests of transparency and clarity”.
Councillors at the Special Meeting noted “recent media comments (including social media) are unacceptable and damaging to council and may warrant further discussions when all councillors have the opportunity to be present”.
A council officer’s report tabled at the meeting was not released.
Crs Darrel Taylor, Suzette Tayler, Michael O’Reilly and Rebekah Spelman did not attend the meeting.
At last month’s council meeting Cr Glenn Aitken and Cr Taylor clashed when debating how councillors should publicly communicate.
“I’ve got no problem with any councillor speaking to the press … councillors are entitled to,” Cr Aitken said.
“I do have a very real problem with councillors misinforming the community via the media. I don’t think that it’s responsible or acceptable for councillors to issue, make or utter comments that are then carried into the public arena to distort what the actual truth is.”
Cr Dooley, chairing the meeting, suspended standing orders with councillors’ agreement to discuss the matter further.
Cr Taylor accused Cr Aitken of being “hypocritical” and said there is one rule for some councillors that is not enforced for others.
Frankston councillors, and some family members, have taken to Facebook in recent weeks to publicly comment on council matters amid online arguments.