THREE councillors who sensationally stymied a Warrnambool City Council debate by walking out of the meeting misinterpreted the local government guidelines they held up as their reason for the protest.
As shock waves reverberated through the community from the walkout by councillors Peter Sycopoulis, Peter Hulin and Brian Kelson, the Municipal Association of Victoria told The Standard their actions were misguided.
A written statement that Cr Sycopoulis attempted to read out against advice from the meeting chair during Monday night’s farce showed he based his stance on an interpretation of the Local Government Act regarding a “pre-determined position” on an issue, claiming it gave him the right to vacate the chambers and take no further part in discussion of the item.
His statement also criticised lack of prior briefing for councillors.
Scheduled debate on a notice of motion to rescind an earlier controversial decision pushed through by the trio failed to eventuate because the walkout meant there was no longer a quorum.
Ironically the main issue at stake, whether $4000 should be spent on mayor Michael Neoh and chief executive Bruce Anson’s trip to Japan this weekend for 20th anniversary celebrations of the Miura sister-city relationship, was buried under a fresh eruption of controversy.
Cr Neoh and Mr Anson will travel under their own financial arrangements to honour an agreement made with Japanese counterparts who visited Warrnambool last year for the first part of the celebrations.
The three walkout councillors did not offer any comments to The Standard yesterday although Cr Sycopoulis re-iterated on radio earlier in the day he had exercised his right because he had a pre-determined position on the issue.
However, Municipal Association of Victoria chief executive Rob Spence said it was clear the trio had misunderstood the guidelines.
“These rules on a pre-determined position apply only to administrative decisions like planning permits and licences where the applicant is entitled to a fair hearing,” he said.
“On general policy issues councillors should participate in debates unless they have a definite conflict of interest.
“Your overriding responsibility as a councillor is to participate in decisionmaking — that is why you were elected.
“Sometimes councillors are looking for a bit of theatre.”
Mr Spence said councillors could obtain good advice from the MAV, council administration or the state government on voting guidelines.
“We generally say there are certain pigeon holes for conflict of interest and if your reason doesn’t fit into one of these then it’s not a conflict,” he said.
Criticism of the trio’s walkout was echoed by Cr Jacinta Ermacora who had put forward the notice of motion to rescind an earlier decision refusing payment of $4000 which had already been approved in the council budget.
She took the chair on Monday night as stand-in for Cr Neoh who declared an interest and left the room before the item was discussed. “I’ve never before come across such flagrant disregard of direction from the chair,” she said yesterday.
“I was flabbergasted to hear comments from the public gallery suggesting he go ahead and read his statement regardless.
“The appropriate approach is either declare an interest and leave or make your comments in the debate.
“Their walkout was outright rebellion.
“It’s not OK for councillors to run away from debate — it prevented the council from making a decision on a matter.
“We all have strong views on issues, but our responsibility as councillors is to participate.
“Cr Sycopoulis’ material would have been quite appropriate for debate.” Cr Ermacora said it appeared the walkout may have been a pre-planned tactic.
“It is a further embarrassment to our sister-city relationship and to Warrnambool City’s reputation,” she said.