By Tyler Wright
A Supreme Court justice is set to make a decision on Yarra Ranges Council’s Urban Design Framework for Monbulk and the council’s decision to close the gallery to in-person meetings.
Self-represented plaintiff Darren Dickson appeared at the hearing virtually on Thursday 3 August in an attempt to seek an injunction on the council passing the draft framework in September, alleging community consultation had not been adequate.
Mr Dickson also took the council to court last month over its refusal to allow people to film councillors and staff during council meetings.
“When people were trying to engage with council, council didn’t want to engage with people,” Mr Dickson, who filed the injunction on behalf of the people of the Yarra Ranges, told Justice Melinda Richards.
“There appeared to be this position from the council at Yarra Ranges not to want to speak to anyone that was opposed to their particular agendas.”
In April 2023, the council closed in-person meetings to the public gallery after what it said was an “increasing pattern of verbal abuse, intimidation and anti-social behaviour”.
The gallery was reopened two and a half months later, on Tuesday 11 July, after Mr Dickson launched legal proceedings.
Registration protocols were put in place for attendees which remain in place.
During cross-examination at the hearing, Yarra Ranges Council’s manager of design and place, Nathan Islip told the court of the “threatening behaviour” he experienced at a 31 January council meeting after approaching the front of the chamber.
“[People were] yelling insults about my professional credibility, they were calling me names, questioning my professional integrity,” Mr Islip said.
“I felt quite unsafe.
“There was talk amongst this as to what I would consider conspiracy theories around 20 minute neighbourhoods, accusing me of trying to lock people up.”
Mr Dickson said closing the in-person meetings restricted those without stable internet connection, and those without resources to watch or engage in the online stream, to engage in a “fundamental aspect in democracy”.
“How can open to the public be closed to the public?”
“It’s a very thin line balancing what is open to the public and what is not.”
Mr Dickson claimed the council was in contravention of the Local Government Act 2020 by documenting a vision for three-storey developments on Monbulk’s Main Road and adopt the State Government’s 20 minute neighbourhood strategy – drawing comparisons to the United Nations’ 15 minute cities framework.
Mr Islip told the court there is no mention of 20 minute cities within the draft Monbulk Urban Design Framework despite a reference within the title of a previous state government funding stream.
“However, it is just good urban design,” he said.
“20 minutes is a nominal measure…typically in [normal] catchment, 500 metres equates to four minutes.
“The intention was to help people become closer to activity for people to access.”
Mr Dickson is seeking an injunction on the council’s decision to pass the draft urban design framework, and is looking for the consultation process to be extended for a further 12 months.
Councillors voted in December 2022 to exhibit the draft framework until 12 March 2023, two weeks after the original deadline of 26 February 2023.
“There’s some drastic concepts being adopted here and the people of these sleepy hollows out in the eastern suburbs are quite concerned about the drastic changes in their community,” Mr Dickson said.
When asked by Justice Richards what gave him special standing to seek an injunction on the urban design framework Mr Dickson said he has standing upon a “special damage”.
“The state has been thrown into a huge debt – this is imposing upon me and everyone in the community a special damage,” he said.
Barrister representing the council, Edward Gisonda, said the council had “no obligation” to consult the community on the draft urban design framework above what was necessary.
“The council is consistently having to balance competing considerations, tensions between what should be done in an environment where rates are capped,” Mr Gisonda said.
Mr Gisonda also said the council was “well within its rights” to establish an urban design framework as per the Local Government Act 2020, and it is not the role of the court to decide on what is a “political decision”.
“Nothing’s stopping Mr Dickson, or anyone else, trying to persuade councillors not to adopt the UDF,” he said.
“The ultimate decision makers here are the councillors.
“The consultation is just one step in a process that will require future consultation as in so far that it requires amendment to the planning scheme.”
Mr Gisonda said Mr Dickson is a “blank slate” to the court.
“Mr Dickson doesn’t tell us where he lives…it is a cagey affadavit, we don’t know what he does, we don’t know what organisations he is a member of.
“He doesn’t have standing to obtain the relief in his originating motion; not only in the UDF, but in other matters.”
Justice Richards said she will reserve her decision, mindful of the council’s plans to vote on the draft framework in September.