IF anyone was searching for a word to describe this week’s Singleton Council meeting, surely “sad” should come to mind.
Yes it was disgraceful.
There was barbed bickering, apparent fodder for the Independent Commission Against Corruption, allegations of spying, police investgating an unsigned letterbox note, leaked emails, a councillor fearing another threatened their safety, tears, a smorgasbord of innuendo and many councillors wishing they weren’t part of it all.
Yes, there was plenty of petty politics and personal disagreement. At times, the council chamber resembled a local sports event. The packed gallery included cheerleaders backing their heroes, occasionally barking at the villains, clapping, egging their teams on and sniggering at the combatants.
For instance, the whole place was in fits of laughter when one councillor stressed that no-one had ever previously complained about the use of the regular mayoral column in The Argus, only to be shown a copy of a 2009 letter he had printed in the paper doing just that.
The problem is complicated.
And it’s as much about what’s not out in the public domain as the dirty linen that was aired this week. Monday night’s outburst provided only a glimpse of what’s been happening behind the scenes for several years.
While the problem can’t be narrowed exclusively to just one thing, there is undoubtedly one thing that’s played a major part – anonymous code of conduct complaints targeting a couple of councillors.
There’s a heavy odour of the complaints being generated very close to the council’s inner sanctum.
The most senior council staff and at least some, if not all, councillors, know exactly where they’re coming from.
There’s a definite division about what should be done with the complaints plus a legal hurdle, including a Supreme Court gag, that limits what can be publicly said about who is responsible.
And that’s why it’s so sad.
It’s very hard and very expensive to sort out a problem with an “anonymous” complainant, particularly if there are numerous complaints and the vast majority eventually prove to be baseless.
For all the platitudes that have been trotted out in recent years about the council’s code of conduct being fair and transparent, the truth is it, it’s a legalistic process that’s lost touch with commonsense and offers far more protection to an anonymous complainant than anyone accused of misdeeds.
The process has created an undercurrent of suspicion and fear that has dragged in the entire council, and extended to their families. It has consumed people’s focus, and in the long run become an endemic degenerative issue.
Whoever is behind these anonymous complaints knows they have legal protection. And a disproportionaly high financial cost of these complaints is being met by the council, which as we all know, is public money that would be better spent on services for this shire.
Councillors are human.
They’re usually decent individuals who run for public office with noble thoughts - to give something back to the community that has nurtured them.
Some Singleton councillors are outstanding, but sometimes even the strongest swimmers flounder in a murky undercurrent.
And if that’s not sad what is it?