When my local government council meeting quest began, a number of people said I had to get to Cottesloe. Well it certainly was an interesting meeting. This is a long post compared to most.

Cottesloe have some significant physical challenges. Their council chamber is a beautiful timber lined room but it’s small. With Covid restrictions, they have moved their meetings into the hall where they sit at fold-up tables with, apparently, no individual microphones. There’s room for the public in the hall but the sound system and acoustics are dreadful and it’s very difficult to hear councillors and often the mayor. The mayor had a microphone but hardly used it.

There were about 15 people in the gallery and even though the acoustics were bad, I was the only person sitting in the front row. I couldn’t figure out why the people having difficulty hearing did not move to a closer row.

There are 6 dynamics in council meetings.

Councillors / mayor
Councillors / each other
Councillors / staff
Public / staff
Public / councillors
Public / mayor

At Cottesloe, the first thing that became obvious was the level of angst between some of the public gallery, the mayor and councillors. There’s clearly a history there and I was told later that some were people who had in previous years been elected members themselves.

There’s always two sides to every story. Here are some issues I observed.

Cottesloe used an excellent visual timing mechanism which gives visual “speak”, “sum up” and “conclude” signals that counts over the allotted time. It runs on a computer screen, it’s large, easy to see and read. It seemed to only be used when the public were speaking, not the councillors. In fairness, only a few councillors were not concise.

Inconsistency of enforcing timing – Some people in the gallery asking questions or making statements were permitted to go over time, others were not. This is potentially problematic. My view is that some of the antagonism was due to people being treated differently. I’d suggest the speaking times be strictly adhered to for everybody.

Taking too long to ask a question – The mayor frequently had to ask people to get to their question rather than make lengthy statements. As a strategic communication specialist, I thought some people shot themselves in the foot by not being concise. As an observer, and with no “skin in the game” I had the luxury of being able to observe the reactions of the councillors. I noticed two things…

(1) The more the public made statements about what appeared to be their “hobby horse”, the more the councillors seemed to lose interest.
(2) When references were made which were critical or negative about council staff, the councillors appeared to cease to be engaged and switched off.

Councillor engagement – Some member of the public who addressed the meeting were well prepared, concise, respectful and courteous and stuck to time. During these, councillors appeared to be engaged in what was being said (the body language was obvious).

Pedantic questions – Some questions were very pedantic and of no apparent significance, and did the askers no favours.

Choosing your words carefully and respectfully – At one point the mayor told a member of the public that “if he behaved like a buffoon, she would intervene.” Understandably, the person took offence at that, even though he was not called a buffoon. It was, in my opinion, a poor choice of words which created unnecessary conflict. The rule of thumb is to always avoid emotionally charged language.

Good recognition of opinion versus fact – The mayor is a lawyer and it showed when she pulled up a couple of people making statements when they were putting forward opinion, not fact.

Calling out inappropriate statements – The mayor was also quick to pull up people who were saying things about the staff which were not appropriate or could adversely reflect on the staff (and sometimes councillors).

Addressing the mayor and councillors – I noticed when certain councillors spoke, they looked at the gallery, which in my view, is disrespectful to the mayor and other councillors.

Incorporating amendments into the substantive motion. There were two instances where it made sense to do this, and the mayor was quick to pick up on these. She managed them very well so it streamlined the meeting. This is a really useful tool to use when an amendment is clearly sensible and practical. It needs the mover and seconder of the substantive motion to agree.

Agenda page numbers – As the page numbers in the agenda were not visible on the screen, the mayor announced them which reduced confusion.

Voting was with raised hands and done quickly, and was well managed by the mayor.

One member of the public accused the council of “doctoring” the minutes by changing a question they had asked and then approving them as true and correct. Now I, of course, have no idea about the veracity of the accusation but it did cause a stir in the gallery.

The opportunity for the public to ask questions or make statements was over about an hour after the meeting opened.

Back to our 6 meeting dynamics. There’s certainly a great deal of obvious angst between the council and some members of the public.

Order of the meeting
I was interested to note that the attendance and apologies were done after question time which seemed odd to me. I do not recall seeing this done in any other council meeting. It’s as though public question time and statements are not part of the meeting.

“En bloc” explanation
For the benefit of the public, the mayor gave a very detailed and helpful description of what moving “en bloc” meant and its ramifications before proceeding with the motion. She then went through the remaining items to see which items members of the public were present and had an issue of interest and explained that she would bring those items forward (change the order of the agenda). A good move I thought. As it happened, there was no need to change the agenda and the meeting proceeded.

Three things surprised me…

1. Opportunity for better organisation – Pieces of paper appeared to be continually shuffled around the top table. In other councils I’ve visited, the mayor has a file with everything in it, in order and they just work through the file. The problem was the top table appeared to be disorganised and it wasn’t a good look.

2. Managing motions – The mayor did not appear to have written who had moved, seconded and spoken for and against the motions so there was some confusion when it came to offering rights of reply. It’s always a good idea to have a written record, especially when procedural motions are moved later as many of those have restrictions about who can and cannot move them.

3. Motions moved from the chair – In some councils, on rare occasions, I’ve seen the presiding member move or second motions. At Cottesloe, this seemed to be a common occurrence.

I have always advised chairs of any meeting to only move motions which have no doubt about their result, such as motions of thanks, congratulations, appreciation, condolence etc. These are appropriately moved from the chair.

Best practice when moving substantive motions
Moving substantive motions from the chair is very rare and is not best practice. I’ve only seen it 4 or 5 times.

I’ve seen one mayor seek leave (of the councillors) to move a substantive motion from the chair. I’ve seen another vacate the chair in order to move a motion and also one vacated to enter debate. In these cases the deputy chaired that part of the meeting.

The most important roles of the chair are:-
To maintain order
Keep the meeting moving to achieve its purpose
Remain impartial

To be a more effective chair, I’ve noticed that in over 30 years of consulting, the wisest mayors and shire presidents have two things in common:-

Firstly, they never move or second motions from the chair. (Except congratulations, condolence or thankyou motions or similar)
Secondly, they always speak last, and never early in the debate.

The minute the chair moves or seconds a motion, their impartiality has gone.

Some chairs have told me it’s okay to “get the ball rolling” but in my view that is a furphy. If another councillor is not willing to get the ball rolling then that is a statement in itself about the importance of the issue.

Also, if the presiding member moves a motion, they then have a right of reply upon which they also need to adjudicate upon appropriateness of the content. In other words, they need to judge and rule on their own speech.

Some people will say the mayor has to vote anyway, and has to “show his or her hand”, but it should be done at the end of debate, not at the beginning.

The number of times councillors spoke was as follows (not including the mayor): 14, 7, 6, 4, 4, 2.

So Cottesloe was interesting. It was a pity there is such angst between some public and the council especially compared to councils where such feelings do not exist or are expressed more constructively.


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