- CHRIS PATTERSON RESPONDS
- EVA CAMPBELL NOTES
COMMENT: It seemed it was only a matter of time before Camden Council would show its true colours. I had heard previously that incivility and rudeness had become a hallmark of council meetings but until tonight I had yet to see it.
What makes it worse is that when I spoke to a local journalist who covers Camden Council after the meeting, not only did they say it was typical but that this was really no worse than usual. And really, when you look at the agenda and how fixed the voting patterns are, there was absolutely no reason for moments of this meeting to descend into farce.
The real problem with Camden Council meetings is that emotions are really starting to get in the way of sensible decision-making. Unfortunately, the mayor, Cr Lara Symkowiak, who chairs these meetings also leads this incivility, as she seems to have neither the patience or self-restraint to avoid taking snide shots and regularly talks over the top of councillors she views as the opposition.
When I look across the chamber, the only two councillors who seem to be intentionally making any kind of effort to build bridges are Cr Cindy Cagney and Cr Paul Farrow, while Ashleigh Cagney appears to be neutral as she learns the ropes. At times over the past two meetings it seems Cr Fideli has reached out to help guide individual motions through but despite this her vote remains fixed to the Liberal agenda on the night.
The Liberals have consistently voted as a bloc and to this point Cr Rob Mills has followed their lead without hesitation. I will however add, that the three Liberal councillors - Theresa Fideli, Peter Sidgreaves and Michael Morrison - all at least tend to maintain a civil and respectful manner in their responses, even when they strongly disagree with something.
It is the mayor who is setting the uncivil and at times childish tone for this council.
The animosity between the mayor and councillor Cr. Eva Campbell is palpable and both regularly needle each other. It has reached a point where it doesn't matter how sensible a suggestion may be, if it comes from Cr Campbell the Liberal bloc will automatically vote against it in support of the mayor, who clearly runs the Camden Council Liberals.
This meeting started quietly but by the first item of business you could see how sensible decision-making went astray because of these animosities.
The first item was the approval of a DA for a new childcare centre in Mt Annan. The centre had some issues but was always likely to go ahead. However, a sticking point was the time it opened — 6am.
So, Cr Theresa Fedeli put forward an amendment suggesting that the gate to the centre not be open until 6am. Cr Campbell said the suggestion was an excellent one.
Then, Cr Campbell also put forward an amendment suggesting that the time of opening could be subject to a 12-month trial. At the end of that year the council could then review the 6am opening time on the basis of evidence of use.
Both struck me as eminently sensible ideas.
The outcome? Cr Fideli’s amendment was passed and Cr Campbell’s amendment was shot down by the Liberal vote. Rob Mills was not in the chambers for this vote as he had a pecuniary interest. The casting vote was the mayor’s.
Neither Cr Peter Sidgreaves, who moved the motion, or Cr Michael Morrison, who seconded it, gave an explanation as to why Cr. Campbell's amendment was unacceptable. But this seemed typical of the way the council now works along party lines.
But it doesn't stop there, beyond the personal, politics outside the council chambers also influences decisions, as the Notice of Motion about Camden and Districts Hospital showed. That politicking also led to some nasty personal battles but we will deal with that further down.
Privatisation of Camden and Districts Hospital
Tonight's Notice of Motion about the Camden and District Hospital - which called on the council to pre-emptively oppose any privatisation of the hospital and then called on our Liberal State Member, Chris Patterson, to take a similar position - showed just how much the council has become beholden to a single party.
What we saw was a community concern about privatisation being turned into a political dogfight. With the recent announcement of the privatisation of Bowral Hospital and tenders being put out just a month later, the fear of staff and residents in Camden that the same thing can happen here is a valid one.
When you look at the motion it was simple. It only asked for a representation to the State Member for his support and then requested he advocate for a report from the NSW Government on the likelihood of privatisation and the costs of upgrades. Councils do this kind of thing all the time.
But in this case, Chris Patterson wanted the Notice of Motion deferred until he could speak to the council in two weeks time. He sent emails and texts to the proponent of the motion, Cr Campbell, and the General Manager that were read out in the meeting.
Cr Campbell then read out notes she made during a phone call with with Mr Patterson at 9:38am that morning.
They include a sentence that states that if Cr Campbell did not agree to the deferral Mr Patterson would get it voted through by the council anyway - suggesting he had the numbers to control the outcome.
Intriguingly, the NSW AMA President and Clinical Director at Campbeltown and Camden hospitals, Prof Brad Frankum, arrived to make a public address about the good works of the hospitals and stated there was no intention to privatise Camden. According to Cr Symkowiak, Prof Frankum rearranged appointments to make this suddenly important address and she said he was also accompanied by the CEO of Campbelltown and Camden Hospitals.
UPDATE CHRIS PATTERSON: I have since spoken to Camden State MP Chris Patterson who claims he never wrote an email or a text of the type that was "read out" at the meeting by Cr Eva Campbell. He says he had a three text exchange with Cr Campbell but at no time suggested the deferral would be forced through.
I have requested a copy of the email/text from Cr Campbell.
Mr Patterson also said:
It is certainly puzzling that Prof Frankum and the CEO would take the time to do this for what is a relatively minor motion with no real action attached to it other than a statement of position.
Equally, one has to ask why this motion should be such an urgent priority for our State MP?
If there was no intention to privatise Camden Hospital then why not let the council pre-emptively take a position opposed to privatisation?
Chris Patterson, even if he received a letter from the council requesting his support and advocacy could choose to agree or disagree with the opposition to a privatised hospital. He doesn't have to follow the council's lead.
UPDATE: Eva Campbell: I have now spoken to Cr Eva Campbell and seen the text she read out at the meeting. The text was actually from contemperaneous notes taken during a phone call at 9:38am on Tuesday with State MP Chris Patterson.
Cr Campbell is an inveterate note taker after many years in council and has many notepads, bits of paper where she writes notes during conversation. It was not clear during the council meeting that these were notes from a telephone conversation, hence the error. I have changed the story above to reflect this.
The flurry of emails and texts by Chris Patterson, the arrival of hospital management for a public address and the bitter arguments across council chambers over something relatively innocuous have actually raised red flags about privatisation not eased concerns.
If the aim was to reduce community worries about potential privatisation this heavy-handed approach of reading out emails, engaging in verbal fisticuffs and bringing in hospital management produced the opposite outcome. Clearly there is something sensitive here.
But the main dysfunction in the council chambers is not even party politics, it comes instead from massive personality clashes and this is where the meeting gets nasty and very unprofessional.
The personal animosity between the mayor and Cr Campbell is an ongoing feature of the meetings. Neither is entirely blameless.
It first reared its head in this meeting during a discussion about the tender for Narellan Sports Hub. When the mayor was asking for councillors to speak for or against the recommendation she missed the casually raised hand of Cr Campbell who wanted to speak to a point.
There was a bit of confusion, so the mayor had to clarify whether Cr Campbell was speaking for or against the recommendation.
Cr Campbell said she had her hand and glasses raised earlier but that the mayor had missed it.
The mayor immediately launched into an attack saying that Cr Campbell did this repeatedly just moved her hand and her glasses to the side. She chastised our longest currently serving councillor as if she was a teacher telling off a pupil and told her if she wanted to be noticed to do it clearly.
This was completely unnecessary.
There were some more needling from both after this sequence that again upped the ante of antagonism.
During this same item, Cr Symkowiak also talked over the top of Cr Cindy Cagney and then shut down Cr Campbell when she was trying to ask a question of councillors about the time pressures they were putting on council officers.
And so it went on.
Later, the mayor called Cr Cagney's Notice of Motion at this meeting a waste of time; sarcastically responded with "oh, my pleasure Cr Cagney" when Cr Cagney thanked her for producing reports, involved herself in another unnecessary altercation with Cr Campbell and then used her position as chair to denigrate Cr Cagney on her Notice of Motion.
When Cr Symkowiak was denigrating Cr Cagney, she was not speaking for or against a motion as meeting protocol requires. When Cr Cagney called a point of order saying that the mayor was using her position as chair to "take this further", Cr Symkowiak shut her down and continued with her attack and statements despite at no point having stated that she was speaking to the motion. She concluded her statement by saying, "I'm just scratching my head at what a waste of time this notice of motion was".
The palpable hostility generated by the mayor in her position as chair has, in my opinion, had a detrimental impact on the running of council meetings. She is too emotionally involved in point-scoring, personal vendettas and unnecessary attacks and at times appears to abuse the power of the chair. We need a constructive chair at council meetings.
Through the intentional drawing of hard party lines and the deepening of animosities, Cr Symkowiak is leading a council that is verging on dysfunctional.
The only thing preventing it from becoming out of control is the fact that she currently has a majority — given to her by Cr Rob Mills. But what this means is that it has become dominated by the needs of a single party, as we saw tonight.
We are four meetings into a two-year mayoral term and four years with this council. There have been some very good things done by this council already but we cannot afford for it to become dysfunctionally dominated by party politics and personal vendettas at a time of such dramatic growth in our region.
It's time everyone in the council chambers grew up, started working together for the benefit of this community and put aside the pettiness that has been a feature of its meetings for far too long. Camden region residents have nearly wiped out entire councils before with their vote.
If things don't change soon, voters will happily put another broom through the chambers.