Legal threat after city council changes prayer

A councillor is threatening legal action against the Adelaide City Council after his failed bid to keep a prayer at the start of council meetings.

Aug 23, 2023, updated Aug 23, 2023
Councillor Henry Davis was outnumbered in his bid to keep a prayer at the opening of Adelaide City Council meetings. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Councillor Henry Davis was outnumbered in his bid to keep a prayer at the opening of Adelaide City Council meetings. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

For a second consecutive council meeting, Town Hall’s public gallery was full on Tuesday night in anticipation of another protest by Davis, who has been reading the opening prayer aloud despite an order from Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith to do it silently.

But the gallery instead heard an extensive legal debate between Davis, the Lord Mayor and council administration over whether elements of its code of practice – namely the prayer – could be changed without a two-thirds majority voting in support.

A six to five majority of Adelaide City councillors on Tuesday night supported changing the prayer at the start of council meetings to a “non-denominational pledge”.

Previously, the prayer read: “Almighty God, we ask your blessing upon the works of the City of Adelaide; direct and prosper its deliberations to the advancement of your glory and the true welfare of the people of this City. Amen.”

The new non-denominational pledge reads: “May we in this meeting speak honestly, listen attentively, think clearly and decide wisely for the good governance of the City of Adelaide and the wellbeing of those we serve.”

The change was voted through with the support of councillors Keiran Snape, Phillip Martin, David Elliott, Jing Li, Mark Siebentritt and Janet Giles.

Snape also moved a procedural motion to terminate debate on the matter and move straight to a vote.

The move, to the outrage of Davis, was supported by the same group of councillors and prevented an alternative prayer being discussed on the chamber floor.

Councillor Henry Davis and Deputy Lord Mayor Phillip Martin bickering over a point of order at last night’s council meeting. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Davis – who did not read the prayer aloud on Tuesday, saying he feared being expelled for the subsequent prayer debate – told InDaily he would be issuing a pre-action notice to the City of Adelaide requesting mediation as a first step in court litigation.

“It’s extremely clear to me, extremely evident that you need a two-thirds majority to amend the code of practice,” Davis said today.

“So I’ll be issuing a pre-action notice to the City of Adelaide.

“Either the council declares the motion invalid and that it wasn’t passed by a two-thirds majority, or I’ll be issuing proceedings.

“It gives the opportunity for the council to do the right thing through the administration staff, and I think that anybody can see that there’s no defendable position by the council on this in taking that view.”

Both Lomax-Smith and council CEO Clare Mockler told Davis at Tuesday’s meeting that under local government regulations only “discretionary procedures” require a two-thirds vote to change.

“Discretionary procedures are named and include only things like petitions, moving and speaking to a motion, amendments to motions, time to speak to a motion, voting, adjournment (and) CEO revocation,” Lomax-Smith said.

“Any other meeting procedure that council decides upon, such as the prayer, only requires a majority vote, I am informed.

“Council has received legal advice that anything that isn’t a discretionary provision only needs a majority vote.”

Mockler later added: “Our legal advice confirms that the process that council is considering tonight is lawful and meets the requirement of the various pieces of legislation.”

InDaily asked council whether it remained comfortable with its legal position in light of Davis’ court threat. In a statement today, acting CEO Michael Sedgman said: “Based on independent legal advice provided to the administration, Council is comfortable with the majorities required to pass the Code of Practice motions at its meeting on 22 August.”

Sedgman also noted that the prior two resolutions, which approved a new code of practice for meeting procedures and deleted parts of council’s standing orders, were passed unanimously.

Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith

Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith at Tuesday night’s council meeting. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

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Davis tried to amend the non-denominational pledge motion by adding his own suggested prayer and later asked to move a motion without notice to achieve the same outcome.

Both attempts were thrown out by the Lord Mayor, who said Davis’ motions would require rescinding the non-denominational pledge motion carried by the council.

Snape’s move to end debate meant an alternative “multifaith prayer” pitched by Central Ward councillor Carmel Noon was not discussed on the council floor.

Noon’s alternative prayer read: “We pray for wisdom, courage, empathy and understanding to provide good governance for the City of Adelaide, with the wellbeing of those we serve and the City’s economic welfare at the forefront of all of our decisions. May we in this meeting speak honestly, listen attentively, and treat each other respectfully. Amen.”

Today, Noon criticised the move to end debate, saying: “We witnessed a group of people who were ensuring that their personal beliefs were going to win over tradition, statistics and the numerous pleas we had to not remove the prayer”.

“I felt that my amendment addressed the issue being a multifaith prayer which also included a pledge and the one word which I think is so important in particular for this Council is respect,” Noon said.

“I was prepared to put aside my personal beliefs for a compromise that addressed what I thought was what we were trying to achieve – inclusivity without totally losing our tradition.

Central Ward councillor Carmel Noon. Photo Tony Lewis/InDaily

“Even when… Davis tried to read out my amendment last night that he supported, he was informed he couldn’t as the recommendation from Committee was quickly put to the Council without any opportunity for my amendment to be seen or heard.”

Noon said she has emailed the council’s governance team to inquire about the amendment process.

Snape defended his move to end debate on the matter, highlighting that councillors discussed the issue extensively at a committee meeting last week.

“I moved that the motion be put as it had been discussed many times at length, including at last week’s committee meeting when the decision was voted on,” he told InDaily.

“Unfortunately, the issue has become a lightning rod and certain councillors are using the situation to further their own agenda and create disruption in an otherwise well ran council.”

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