Yarra Ranges Council closes public gallery during meetings

Members of My Place Yarra Valley with police at the January 31 council meeting. Picture: PARKER MCKENZIE

By Parker McKenzie

Yarra Ranges Council will close its meeting to the public until at least June due to an “increasing pattern of verbal abuse, intimidation and anti-social behaviour,” after several meetings throughout the year were adjourned and held behind closed doors.

The decision to close the public gallery was announced on Thursday 20 April, following two council meetings being adjourned in 2023 by Mayor Jim Child after members of the fringe-community group My Place Yarra Valley either interjected from the public gallery or filmed councillors and staff without permission from the chair.

Mayor Child told the Star Mail that the council has been “clear and transparent with the business that we conduct within the chamber and always welcomed community input.”

“I’ll probably go so far to say we probably do it better than other councils where agenda items if there are no registered speakers, I’ll ask the gallery do you want to speak to a particular item?” he said.

“We do have interaction to the gallery, but what’s happened since late last year is that we’ve got this body of people that come to our chamber and they’ve really got nothing more on their mind but to disrupt proceedings, and that’s what they’re doing.”

My Place Yarra Valley has attended every council meeting in 2023 to oppose the implementation of 20-minute neighbourhood design plans and a perceived increase in surveillance throughout Yarra Ranges Shire, often with over 100 people filling the public gallery at the Yarra Ranges Civic Centre.

The Star Mail asked My Place Yarra Valley to respond to several questions regarding their involvement in the decision to close the public gallery and comments made by Mayor Child to the Star Mail and ABC Radio on Thursday 20 April.

In a statement, MPYV said “there is no evidence of verbal abuse, intimidation and anti-social behaviour from the public gallery.”

“We encourage interested persons to scrutinise councils footage. The fact that the Council will not engage with the Gallery during meetings obviously creates frustration for residents who feel they are not being heard, [sic]” the response said.

“The closing of the gallery is a reactive response to eliminate the communities engagement in the right to scrutinise and participate in the democratic process we enjoy here in Australia.”

On Tuesday 11 April, Mayor Child adjourned the council meeting after those in attendance refused to stop filming from the gallery.

“I made it very clear at the beginning of the meeting because councillors had raised that concern where they get a phone with the internal light of the phone on and it’s directed straight at the councillor while they are speaking, it’s not necessary and we don’t need that,” Mayor Child said.

“The meeting is recorded, the video is recorded and it’s just beyond me that type of behaviour. What this really shows is that their main cause is to disrupt the meeting and then you can go one step further by looking at the causes that this My Place is actually supporting.”

When asked about the ban on filming in the gallery, MPYV said “the only logical answer is that the council do not want to be exposed for what may occur given that it could be captured on our cameras but deleted from the council recordings.”

“It is clear from the lack of community engagement in the areas being set up as 20 minute communities, council are not fulfilling their obligations under their own public transparency and community engagement policies which clearly provide it is the community that have the ultimate say by placing the final decision making in the hands of the public,” the response said.

“This is clearly not taking place and this is the main reason for the community attending the meetings. The community feel their voice is not being heard.”

Mayor Child said staff and councillors have started to become nervous when leaving the chamber late at night, following the end of council meetings.

“We don’t know what they’re up to, we leave these premises thinking what’s going to happen next?” he said.

“That’s where it’s, I believe, a threat to democracy when we have people like this that come in and continually want to disrupt the proceedings of council and threaten councillors.”

In response, MPYV said “it is regrettable that the Mayor has instilled fear into the staff and other councillors.”

“The Mayor and staff have absolutely no reason to feel nervous as we are a passive peaceful group, council are possibly misinterpreting assertive passionate rate payers and we feel Councils opinion of the mums and dads attending their meetings is extreme.” the statement said.

The April 11 council meeting was the second to be closed to the public in 2023, after a meeting on Tuesday 31 January was adjourned and police were called to the premise after the public gallery refused to leave the building.

While appearing on ABC Radio, Mayor Child referred to the group as conspiracy theorists and said members hadn’t come to terms with the Holocaust, in reference to My Place founder Darren Bergwerf’s comments during an interview with ABC’s 7.30 program.

My Place Yarra Valley said the statement from Mayor Child was not a fair characterisation of those attending the meetings.

“To insinuate that all 30,000 My Place members across Australia have the same thoughts and opinions is ludicrous,” they said.

“In fact, it seems that the Mayor’s comments are designed to discredit and defame what is a wonderful and supportive community group that are tired of bureaucracy and government overreach.”

Mayor Child said all he wants to do is “get that gallery open again because we are in a unique position with local government.”

“If you try this sort of behaviour in Spring Street or up in Canberra, you would be thrown out,” he said.

“I just plead with the people that come to our chamber just to disrupt the business of council and I’ve said this so many times before — I’ve said it to their leader when we had a discussion with him — just follow the governance rules, we’ve got it there, everyone else has to do it, we’ll answer your questions, we’ll interact with you but this behaviour of shouting abuse has to stop.”

Yarra Ranges councillors and staff met with two members of MPYV, Ian Bergwerf and Belinda Bernardini, after police were called to the council meeting in January.

In response, My Place Yarra Valley argued questions are not threats and that members of the public are entitled to question the council’s agenda.

“As there has been no pattern of verbal abuse, intimidation and anti-social behaviour, we suspect the closure is a tactic to undermine community participation and Australia’s fundamental democratic process at a grass roots level.” the statement said.

The council will continue to live stream meetings until at least June when Mayor Child said the council plans to reopen the public gallery.

“If we continually get into a situation where we can’t conduct orderly business, well, we’ll have no choice but to go again and do what we’re doing now,” he said.

“We’re not closing down council, we are doing it on a different platform. If anyone can come online and see what we’re doing, they can still interact, they can still register questions, they can still register submissions, there’s no problem there.“