THE public gallery was thrown out of a tense Frankston Council meeting last week.
Tensions have been running high at council’s recent public meetings. A marathon four-hour meeting last week was stopped and started on multiple occasions as debate broke down into arguments, and the public gallery made repeated interjections. By the end of the meeting the public had been removed and the mayor had threatened to boot one councillor from the room.
The public gallery was kicked out during debate on the future of the traders at the base of Olivers Hill. One member of the gallery shouted that councillors were “disgusting” as the mayor closed the meeting. Interruptions from members of the public at council meetings have increased in frequency throughout the year.
Frankston mayor Nathan Conroy told The Times that the removal of the gallery was justified. “This week is the first time this council has unfortunately needed to ask the public gallery to leave a meeting. While not my preference, this will be the course of action if council deliberations and debate are affected by the public attendance. However, I do encourage residents to attend meetings and respectfully watch our democratic process in action,” he said. “There is of course opportunity for the community to be part of the conversation. Residents are able to make submissions to speak on the items being considered by council and in turn we are able to consider their views.
“It is important all council debate is done respectfully in a fair and balanced manner, and in turn the same is said for community participation. It is my role to be impartial and ensure councillors have the opportunity to be heard. To do this I need to manage interjections from the public gallery and ensure this does not affect or stall council deliberations.”
After being repeatedly called out on points of order throughout the 24 October meeting, councillor Steven Hughes was nearly ejected from the room. Conroy issued him a final warning towards the end of the meeting, telling him he would be sent outside for 15 minutes if he continued to misbehave.
Not for the first time, Steven Hughes compared a law proposed by Frankston Council at its last meeting to those found in North Korea. After a failed attempt to cut him off from speaking on a different matter he was allowed to continue, which he sensationally likened to being “reprieved from death row”.
The Times asked mayor Nathan Conroy if Frankston Council had a culture issue. He said “at times, strong views are expressed. This has been the case recently where we have debated a number of issues that have been of great interest to councillors and the community. This is part of the passion we have for the roles we carry out – we each look to how we can best serve our community.”
“I believe the community is seeing the results of the work this council is doing – only recently the community satisfaction survey showed satisfaction with community decisions, and overall governance and leadership both reached 71 per cent, an increase of over 10 per cent, while consultation and engagement also jumped that same percentage to reach 69 per cent,” Conroy said.
Steven Hughes is currently facing the possibility of a 12 month suspension from council. Seven of his fellow councillors have agreed to apply for a councillor conduct panel, alleging he has engaged in serious misconduct. Since being elected in 2020 he has been the subject of two arbitration applications, and has served a one month suspension.
Earlier this year Hughes applied for a councillor conduct panel alleging former mayor Kris Bolam had bullied him. The allegations were dismissed, and the process ended up costing ratepayers more than $30,000. In 2021, arbitration initiated when Hughes made a Facebook post saying council’s social media policy would “make Kim Jon-Un nod in approval” cost ratepayers more than $11,000.
Ratepayers have borne the cost of poor behaviour at council before. The previous Frankston Council had its conduct judged by a state government-appointed monitor for more than a year. The monitor’s stint at council cost ratepayers more than $100,000.