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Victorian council’s use of online meetings to avoid conspi…


A Victorian council’s bid to stop conspiracists disrupting its work has been challenged in the state’s supreme court, which heard a “chaotic” meeting led to a planning official being accused of trying to “lock people up”.

Yarra Ranges council, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, announced in April it would close its public gallery for council meetings citing verbal abuse and intimidation from some of those attending them, including members of the conspiracist group My Place. It reopened its meetings to the public last month.

Darren Dickson, a critic of the council, who is not alleged to be a member of the My Place group, launched legal proceedings alleging it failed to meaningfully engage with ratepayers over the design framework for the small town of Monbulk.

He also alleges the decision to close the public gallery for Yarra Ranges council meetings prevented residents from participating in the democratic process.

“It’s actually in conflict with a very fundamental foundation of democracy … being able to participate in government,” Dickson told the court on Thursday.

Edward Gisonda, a barrister representing the council, told the court that the council was able to close the in-person meetings for security reasons under the state’s local government legislation. He said council meetings were still available to the public via online broadcasts.

“The meeting was never closed,” he told the court.

But Dickson argued that by only holding meetings online, disadvantaged community members who have challenges accessing a quality internet connection or cannot connect to the meetings were being blocked from democratic participation.

He also argued that requiring members of the public to register was a breach of privacy.

But the council’s manager of design and place, Nathan Islip, told the court that he was subjected to verbal abuse at a meeting in January.

He said that meeting was shut due to members of the public approaching councillors, and council staff stayed behind to speak to those who attended.

I approached the front of the chamber to have those conversations and was quickly surrounded by numerous people yelling at me,” he told the hearing, which is being held online.

“They were yelling insults about my professional credibility.”

Islip said he felt “unsafe” and described the scenes as “chaotic” before police arrived to assist.

He said among those that were there were people who held “conspiracy theories” about 20-minute neighbourhoods – an urban planning concept that aims to provide key services within walking distance for residents. Conspiracy theories have argued it is a Trojan horse to put residents in a type of permanent lockdown.

“They were accusing me of trying to lock people up,” Islip told the court.

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“There was repeated conversations around the installation of cameras around intersections and, ‘what are those cameras being used for? Who are watching those cameras?’.”

Dickson, who is representing himself, pointed to Islips’s affidavit which alleged “threatening comments” made towards him by members of the public. He argued that people questioning Islip’s integrity was not a threat.

But Islip said being surrounded by people yelling was threatening behaviour.

“When someone is hostile towards me and starting to turn personal rather than focusing on the content of what my work is, I see that as having crossed a line,” he said.

Islip said the council’s urban design framework did not reference 20-minute neighbourhoods, and the concept was embedded in the Victoria’s Plan Melbourne document.

“We do need to give consideration to 20-minute neighbourhood given it’s a state government policy,” he said.

The council’s director of corporate services, Andrew Hillson, told the court that engagement with the community over the design framework included community meetings, letters, social media and notifications on a website inviting submissions.

“There were community pop-up sessions planned and advertised,” he told the court.

Dickson argued that the public exhibition, on display at the council building but not available online, left residents in the dark. But Hillson said the council employed a range of engagement methods.

Justice Melinda Richards reserved her decision, but said she was mindful council intended to vote on its design framework next month.

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