Controversial legal policy left for further debate
A CONTROVERSIAL legal policy which would allow public money to fund legal action against council critics was tabled for further debate in yesterday's general meeting.
While it would allow councillors who find themselves facing legal action to apply for assistance from the council, the Policy on the Provision of Legal Assistance for Councillors and Employees would also allow assistance for legal action "if a person or organisation unreasonably continues to make untrue and unwarranted statements (including on social media) against a councillor or employee".
Legal costs for defamation action against third parties would also be considered in "exceptional circumstances".
Coming under close scrutiny, the policy has been strongly criticised by Gympie state member Tony Perrett and councillor Glen Hartwig.
Moving to let the matter lay on the table, Cr Hilary Smerdon said more clarity was required in the policy and it should be held over.
Cr Glen Hartwig seconded the motion, saying the concept of what the policy was trying to achieve was good but the framework needed to be refined.
He added the policy was putting two people up to be "shot like ducks", and said when action is taken it should be decided by the council in a "live by the sword, die by the sword approach".
Although he thought the issue had gone a "bit off track" from the public and the media who should "find their facts first", Cr Mal Gear he said he thought there needed to be more discussion over it.
According to Cr Mark McDonald, the crux of the matter was simple: "I think if there's confusion among any of us, then it should lie on the table," he said.
Cr Dan Stewart said he agreed with the policy, but said there are some areas which do need to be looked at again.
"I know some concerns have been raised in terms of just one person approving the applications for legal assistance," he said.
"It almost seems a little bit in house, perhaps."
Cr Daryl Dodt disagreed with the motion.
"I can't see the point in holding this over to get clarity on clarity," he said.
While he was happy to hold it over if it was the general consensus of the council, Cr Dodt said he was worried "the longer it lays on the table, the less transparency there is and the less accountability there is".
"At this moment in time we can make a legal representation on behalf of council without any public knowledge of why and as soon as this policy is adopted we will have that transparency that the public is so desperately crying out for."
Addressing the council, Mayor Mick Curran said the policy had taken on "a life of its own", and he was "quite amazed" by headlines saying the policy could stop freedom of speech.
"I do acknowledge it is a bit ambiguous in the wording, and am happy to support the matter laying on the table," Cr Curran said.
He said the policy for Gympie had come about from a complaint to the ombudsman which "exonerated the Gympie Regional Council and its actions and actually went a little ways to support the action that was taken".
The motion to let the matter lie was carried unanimously.