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WA councillor fights back against social media gag

This is a story of one man’s mission to speak out about how his local government operates in Western Australia.

Michael Southwell is a Walkley Award winning former reporter for this newspaper who left 15 years ago to go into his family’s business.

He won Australia’s top print journalism award in 2002 for a three-year long investigation into health and environmental issues surrounding Alcoa’s refineries in WA.

It was no secret in the newsroom that his series of reports over 18 months were published against strong opposition, some of it from his own editor.

Like a lot of the best investigative journalists, Southwell can be a difficult bugger. He is driven by a relentless curiosity, a probing nature that led a former premier to say he “smelled cabbage cooking in every corridor” and a cantankerous rebelliousness when he thinks he is being obstructed.

By way of disclosure, I have known him since we met on the staff of The Western Mail in the early 1980s and he’s been one of my closest colleagues and friends ever since.

Finding civvy street a bit boring after the media, Southwell joined the Bridgetown Shire Council where a battle was brewing over a biomass plant near his rural home in 2007.

He recently moved to Bunbury, where his children were enrolled in school, and subsequently won a seat on the Capel shire in October last year.

He soon saw things he thought needed changing.

This year he has had a series of findings made against him by the local government standards panel over issues he raised in the council or comments he made about them on his Facebook page.

And now the Capel council has adopted a new communications and social media policy that seeks to restrict what councillors can say or communicate in private if their words “have the potential to be made public.”

Consider the chilling effect that edict has on free speech. Every councillor has to second guess what might happen to any critical words they utter privately.

How does it benefit ratepayers who want issues aired openly and transparently by their elected representatives?

It seeks to turn councillors into nothing more than vacuous cheer squads.

Southwell’s first transgression came after he unsuccessfully moved in January to change council seating arrangements so staff, other than the CEO, were not at the table unless requested by the president.

“My reasons were that under the Local Government Act, council meetings should be held, run and conducted by elected councillors only, not senior staff,” Southwell wrote on his Facebook page. “At Capel, all the senior staff sit at the council table during all the meetings.”

CEO Paul Sheedy complained and the standards panel upheld that Southwell breached the local government rules of conduct by causing “detriment” to senior staff by inferring they were “running and conducting council meetings”.

Southwell was also slotted for moving a motion calling on the CEO to open to the public so-called “round table discussions” and “budget workshops” held before council meetings.

In his reasons for the motion, published in the minutes, Southwell argued it would make the council more open and accountable.

This was found to be a “detriment” to councillors by inferring they were making decisions prior to council meetings.

Whether or not that possible inference is true was irrelevant.

The veracity of a statement made supporting a council motion was never investigated.

The CEO had another complaint upheld that Southwell said on his Facebook page that all councillors other than him did not support a series of motions from the annual electors’ meetings.

The CEO alleged one of the four subsequent council decisions contesting the electors’ motions was also opposed by one other councillor.

So the votes were 8-1, 8-1, 8-1 and 7-2, not 8-1, 8-1, 8-1, 8-1.

That alleged mistake by Southwell apparently caused “detriment” to other councillors. Nowhere in the council minutes is the other dissenting councillor named.

However, the most bizarre breach was for asking a question on notice at the March council meeting:

“In regards to the council policy which sees annual payments made by the shire to the council’s president, Cr Scott, and one of his relatives, Mr Chris Scott, of $830 and $2453 respectively, for their roles as volunteer firefighting officers, are any similar payments made to other volunteers in the shire who may offer significant commitments in terms of time, effort and personal expense.”

Cr Murray Scott complained that Southwell was inferring that he received payment because he was the shire president when it was in accordance with a policy adopted in 2002 to make payments to the chief and deputy chief bush fire control officers. Scott has been president since 2001.

Chris Scott said by naming him as chief bush fire control officer and his relationship to an elected member of the council, Southwell had “disadvantaged both myself and future incumbents of this position in the eyes of the community”.

Southwell said the question was asked “honestly and reasonably” in the performance of his duties as a councillor.

He did not know the answer when he asked it.

The local government standards panel found Southwell made “improper use of his office” by asking the question and did so to cause detriment to Cr Scott.

The judgment makes interesting reading for those fascinated by arcane legal gymnastics. Otherwise it’s ridiculous.

“The question on notice is stated and communicated in such a way as to imply that the second complainant is given preference over other volunteers in the shire and receives an annual payment of $2453 because he is a relative of the shire president and not because of his independent role as chief bush fire control officers,” the finding said.

Southwell now has seven panel findings against him and thinks there are another five matters in the pipeline.

Since the council adopted the new WALGA communications policy at its November meeting, he is unsure what he can say anywhere about anything to do with the council.

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