Proposed changes to Ballarat’s council question time is going to make it ‘incredibly difficult’ for the public to understand why decisions are being made, according to a former mayor.
The City of Ballarat meeting chairperson – usually the mayor – could now veto a question if it doesn’t relate to matters in the council agenda. In Ballarat, members of the public often use question time to request updates on broader projects, such as Civic Hall.
As part of the new plan, all questions will have to be submitted in writing to City of Ballarat before 10am on the day of an ordinary meeting.
The new meeting procedure will be considered at an ordinary council meeting on December 12.
Former Ballarat mayor John Barnes, a regular in Town Hall’s question time, said the upshot of the changes and planned veto powers means the “public can never get an item for discussion before the councillors”, and didn’t fit with council’s public commitment to transparency.
“They’re making the hurdles for the public to participate in the affairs of the council so much higher,” he said. “Fewer and fewer people are going to be able to jump it.
“This just formalises and bureaucratises the whole thing in a way that really makes it incredibly difficult for members of the public and councillors to have a meaningful exchange.”
He said the laws require people to be “quite well-organised in advance”. With details of the agenda only required to be released 48 hours before the meeting, Mr Barnes said that “makes it quite hard for people to make a submission”.
While the current local laws say public questions should be as “brief as possible”, if changes are approved, a question with context will no longer be allowed to be longer than 150 words.
Council officers stated the reduced question length would mean questions were “answered in a timely and efficient manner and to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to ask questions at meetings,” in a report to be tabled at next week’s meeting.
Deputy mayor Jim Rinaldi said at this stage he’s “yet to be convinced” by the purported benefits, saying there needs to be an explanation of why the change is being made and who it benefits.
“How [question time] has been working is fine,” he said.
“If someone comes in and asks a question, we as councillors as informed and we can extend the question to the officer. That’s good governance in my view.
“People need to feel they are being heard by councillors, they only come in because they can’t get through to officers or someone to explain the issues they have.
“I can’t get any sense out of this.”