Council gets a wake up call.

Posted: July 19, 2009 by admin in Uncategorized

Last Monday the Council had an extraordinary meeting to discuss how to restructure its budget in the light of the NSW Minister for Local Government refusing the Council’s request for a Special Rate variation.

The Minister made it clear in her press release that the successful rates variations showed “evidence of community consultation and support as well as a solid business case”. This was a wake up call to the Council that if it wants to get the changes it wants it needs to have the community it serves behind it.

If the reaction of the Council to this news so far is any indication, they didn’t hear the wake up call. In the report itself we are told”It is unfortunate that the silent majority did not provide more tangible support.” Ah… it’s not because the Council didn’t make its case convincingly, it’s because the citizens who supported the rates variation couldn’t be bothered supporting the Council. In another part of the report, we are told that one of the primary concerns of the Department of Local Government was “the community feedback received by both the Council and the Department has been overwhelmingly against the proposed special rate variation.”

So let me get this straight… there was overwhelming negative feedback to the rates variation, but the Council knows that the “silent majority” actually supports the rates variation.  Perhaps someone in the Council could let us all know how they know what the silent majority thinks. And if they do know, why didn’t they enlighten the Department of Local Government about this?

The Moruya Examiner reported that our Mayor, Fergus Thompson, said the Council would be forced to look at cuts in environmental programs and in employment as a way of meeting the $973, 000 shortfall in revenue that results from the refusal of the rates variation.

Today I received a letter in the mail, informing me that the Sustainability Expo for 2009 had to be cancelled “due to constraints with internal resources” so I take it that this is the one of the first casualties of the special rates refusal.

It would be easy to stop at this point, sit back and comment from the sidelines about the actions that the Council is taking to solve a problem of its own making.  The harder, but probably more interesting path is to see if there are any constructive suggestions we can make to ensure that next time the Council approaches the Department for Local Government for funds, it can convincingly show it has consulted the community and has some evidence that the majority is behind its request.

So let’s take the harder path. As I see it, there are two important areas where the Council needs to make some changes in the way it deals with the people it serves.  The first is its image, and the second is the way it interacts with the citizens of Eurobodalla.

Council’s Image

Mayor Thompson told the Moruya Examiner that one of the reasons for the refusal of the Council’s application for a special rate rise was that “the Minister was unhappy with past management practices” He responded “We are the current management and we are going to be the ones to wear it”

The problem is that many in the community don’t see that anything has really changed in the Council over the last few years.  OK we have had an election, but there was almost no change in personnel. Only two new Councillors were elected, or three if you count Chris Vardon’s re-election. This was the will of the people, and a case could be put that this shows that the people were basically happy with what was done by the old management.  It could also be put that there was so little interest in the Council elections that only familiar faces were re-elected with little regard to the policies and interests that they represented.

We have had a change in the General Manager but the Council reports that we get from the Council staff are still designed to hide information rather than to give it; they still have the air of being an unnecessary and tedious interruption to governing, rather than a welcome opportunity to involve the community in the decisions the Council must make.

The gratuitous comment about the silent majority in this last report is a good example of this thinking – how dare people disagree with what we have decided – they must be those nasty people who live on the fringe, not the nice docile people who are so easy to govern. Perhaps those nice docile people have given up talking because they are never listened to, and the negative comments are the desperate attempts of people who actually care about the Council to try to change what is happening.

Let’s assume that Mayor Thompson is correct and that there is a new management in the Council.  We all need to see that this is the case in actions rather than words.

  • We need to see that this is a Council that can be trusted to put the citizens of Eurobodalla first, not corporations or developers or other special interests
  • we need to see that this is a Council that understands that it is there to serve the people rather than to govern them,
  • We need to see that the Council will make decisions that are not designed to punish those who disagree with what they are doing.

Doing these things will be a sign to all of us that we do have a Council that is worth taking some notice of, and is worth engaging with.

So far we appear to be getting old management, not new.  The measures that the Council is taking appear to be all designed to affect the more vulnerable, through job freezes,  reduction of involvement in job training schemes, and reduction of services provided by the Council, or by retreating from more progressive approaches the Council has been taking recently regarding the environment.  There was not a mention of increasing charges on developers, or working with environment groups and green businesses to see how we can make better use of the resources available to us in the Eurobodalla. There does not seem to be any thought about being innovative in the way services are provided to ensure they make best of the resources available.  It’s all about cutting services, retreating from innovation, hitting the most vulnerable and allowing the powerful to ride on their backs:  all old management, so perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking nothing has changed.

Better Consultation

The Minister for Local Government cited lack of effective community consultation and support as a key reason that the rate increase was not approved. This Council does not have a good record on community consultation, and it will need to lift its game if it is going to develop a better public image with the Community it serves.

At the minute, community consultation seems to be viewed as an optional extra. We had the unedifying situation where instead of Council staff  providing for Community consultation as a matter of course,  Cr Vardon had to move for an extension on the controversial LEP so that there could be public consultation on the changes it was going to make to approval processes in the Shire. The public meeting that was then called was badly organised, and from all accounts chaotic, leading to dissatisfaction from all parties.  There was similar feedback about the public meeting to discuss the Management plan for the Shire. I would have thought that most senior public servants would have strong skills in consulting the people they serve, or would ensure that they had access to staff who did. I would also have thought that developing an effective consultation process to explain major changes to public policy would be an integral part of working through the policy. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Perhaps the Council needs to take a few steps back and look at its consultation processes.  There are many ways now that people can be involved in the Council’s deliberations.  Not only do we have the traditional methods of meetings and focus groups and discussions with interest groups; now we also have access to many different ways to consult and get opinions through the net.  How about using a public wiki with drafts of papers to get opinions on different approaches to an issue.  Twitter is another new tool that could be used to collect opinion about an issue.  All of these are powerful and often very cost effective consultation tools.

There is a lot of interest in the Council, which is evident in the overflowing meeting hall when there was a chance to make our opinions known about the LEP, and the development of sites such as The Peoples Council, and other local sites dealing with local issues.  These are NOT threats to the Council but can be powerful allies in helping the Council to develop an effective dialogue with the people it serves.  The sites are freely available to anyone who wants to log on; it’s possible to write an opinion piece like this, and get feedback almost in real time. The feedback is multi faceted – it’s not just between the author and those who read the piece, but it is also between the readers themselves, and this does provide the opportunity for new and unexpected perspectives to appear. These sites are often run by people who are passionate about local affairs, who would gladly devote time to improve communication between the Council and the Community.

There are also many people in the Eurobodalla who are retired or semi-retired who have strong consultation and policy development skills.  With the right approach the Council may well find that these people may also be prepared to work with the Council to improve consultation.

If the Council wants to improve its image in the Community it needs to make sure that it communicates well with the people it serves.  At the minute there are many examples to show that the Council is not communicating well, and is not using the avenues available to it, with the advent of new internet tools to effectively hear the views of the people it serves.

Council got a wake-up call with the refusal of the additional rate rise, making it clear that it needs to communicate better with the people it serves to obtain their support.  The Council can ignore the message it is receiving and believe that only the fringes disagree with what it is doing.  It does this at its peril.  There will be less interaction with the Council, but it will be because people have given up trying, rather than because they agree with what the Council is doing.

If the Council heeds the wake up call, and Mayor Thompson is right that we do have new management in the Council, we could find that we have a vibrant future ahead of us.  There may be some fireworks, but they are colourful and give illumination; there may be disagreement, but that means that we hear and can evaluate different points of view. We will also see innovation, a willingness to find common solutions.  I hope the Council is under new management and that we will see the mayor and senior council staff looking to improve their communications with the people that they serve.

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