City of Rockingham Mayor rejects accusations of bullying, accuses councillor of telling “untruths”

Stuart HortonSound Telegraph
Generic images taken around Rockingham. Pictured - City of Rockingham administration building
Photo by Daniel Wilkins
Camera IconGeneric images taken around Rockingham. Pictured - City of Rockingham administration building Photo by Daniel Wilkins Credit: The Sunday Times

City of Rockingham Mayor Barry Sammels has rejected accusations of bullying aimed at the City in the wake of an ongoing stoush with a councillor over their social media use.

Just minutes into last night’s council meeting, Mr Sammels invoked clause 3.6 of the City’s Standing Orders Local Law 2001 - which allows the presiding member of any meeting to announce or raise a matter of interest or relevance, or propose a change to the order of business - to address the packed gallery, many of whom were believed to be there to support Cr Matthew Whitfield.

Cr Whitfield claimed earlier this month he was being victimised for speaking out on social media about a divisive $7500 ratepayer-funded send-off for former chief executive Andrew Hammond and the ratepayer-funded City delegation trip to sister sister Ako, Japan.

Mr Sammels said the City had been conscious “not to jeopardise the opportunity for natural justice and due process” after Cr Whitfield was twice referred to the Local Government Standards Panel, and headed off an anticipated quizzing from members of the public during public question time to read instead from a prepared statement.

He said it was time to “clarify a number of misconceptions and untruths” aired publicly and implored no councillor had been asked to close down social media accounts or remove their digital presence by the City, nor had the City sought to impede the ability of councillors to be transparent to the community.

He said, however, the City had requested councillors abide by its own Code of Conduct as well as the Local Government (Rules of Conduct) Regulations 2007.

Mr Sammels referred to a “series of inaccurate and misleading posts” made by Cr Whitfield on social media, which had “generated very negative perceptions” of the City and council.

“Information concerning adopted policies, procedures and decisions of the council should be conveyed accurately,” he added.

“Inferences have been made suggesting that the City, council and other councillors are not promoting transparency, openness and accountability. This is not true. The City and council meets and exceeds its legislative requirements, and constantly seeks new ways of involving the community.

“Social media commentary on the Code of Conduct complaints in question contains many inaccuracies, misleading statements, omission of context, and absence of the full facts.

“I am saddened and disappointed at the manner in which these matters have been reported. Many of my fellow councillors have expressed similar disappointment. Much of the good work that the council has done will be tarnished by these actions. I have not seen or experienced anything like it in my time as an elected member.”

Mr Sammels said concerns had been raised as far back as 2016 about a perceived “continuous disregard” by Cr Whitfield for the “rules of conduct governing a councillor’s role”.

“Various attempts to mediate with Cr Whitfield in relation to these matters have proved unsuccessful,” he said.

Councillors were recently invited to take part in a training session focused on their ethical and legal obligations, which Mr Sammels said was arranged as a direct consequence of a Notice of Motion by Cr Whitfield. Cr Whitfield did not attend, nor did Cr Lee Downham and Deputy Mayor Deb Hamblin.

Mr Sammels said councillors’ obligations were not new and the requirements had “been in place for many years”.

“Some social media commentary has suggested that the complaints in respect to breaches by elected members is a new thing; that certain elected members are being victimised or bullied. This is untrue,” he said.

“Councillors past and present have been cautioned, received warnings and have had complaints made against them to the Local Government Standards Panel. The difference is that the councillors subject to those past complaints have not aired them publicly.”

Cr Whitfield took to social media after the meeting and revealed he was facing a “third date” with the Local Government Standards Panel.

“If I talk about the issues at council I am accused of breaching the local government act if I mention anything in facebook I am accused of breaching the government act (sic),” he wrote.

“I cannot say anything but if you were there and wanted to tell the community about the issues we discussed there is nothing I can do to stop you.”

Last night’s meeting was also electronically recorded, which was a first for the City, but raised further questions from Cr Whitfield.

“I have been pushing since 2015 to have the council meetings recorded or live streamed and the city have been reluctant. However tonight for the first time the city wanted the meeting recorded as there were a lot residents who were going to ask questions,” he wrote.

Cr Whitfield also said he was “personally fed up of this whole issue” and instead wanted to focus on the good work the council was doing.

“It is my belief that the City is operating well, the hard working City staff continue to work well and normal service is happening and there are some great projects happening,” he said.

“I am sorry for my part in this whole matter dominating so much airspace when there are much more important things happening in the City.

“Personally I am fed up of this whole issue, it is stressing me a lot and distracting from the main purpose of providing for the community and I am looking forward to the new CEO starting in a few weeks.”

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