Towards A Better Council
Last year, 8,500 people signed a petition to the state government calling for the de-amalgamation of the Fraser Coast Regional Council. A few months ago, in conversation with a Maryborough businessman, I suggested that this indicated major electoral problems for the mayor and for some at least of the councillors. The businessman dismissed this sentiment, declaring that “These people were the malcontents.”
Well it seems to me that if 8,500 people are so “malcontented,” something is seriously wrong, and yet the council seems in many respects just as dismissive. These numbers reflect what I have been hearing on the streets and reading in the press for quite some time. A large part of the population is not happy with the style, and much of the substance, of this council.
Some of the substantive problems are dealt with in the Issues of this website. Here I want to discuss some of the generic problems, and touch on how the disappointments of the current council can be turned around with the election of councillors with good sense and a better approach to their roles. What follows is a short summary of the problems and my view of a new approach. Below, I discuss the issues in more detail, and provide links to further relevant material.
The problem in summary
Overwhelmingly I hear complaints of a failure to consult. In some cases there is no consultation at all. In others, the council tightly controls the process, limiting it to the chosen few. Some organisations are included, others, just as involved, are left out. When a draft plan is finally put out for public submissions, the decisions have already been made. The whole process is designed to ensure that the pre-ordained result is endorsed, or can be said to be.
The Chamber of Commerce, in its submission on the Pialba CBD Plan, complained about “the current process where community consultation is included at the end of the design process once a design structure has already been conceived and resolved.” (See the link to this important document at the end of this section.)
Next, the council closes ranks. How often have we seen major decisions made, then criticised by the public, but such criticisms met with virtually no response? The Wide Bay Water saga is a case in point. When the council appointed board, having had some time to see the matter up close, suggested that WBW might be better off left alone, the council response was to change the board. They made no attempt to engage with the arguments or the community concerns.
With only a few exceptions, the councillors simply circle the wagons and remain mute. If they have opinions, we never hear of them. This might be their idea of a good way to save their jobs, but it is a poor way to run a community.
One of the problems with councillors never being prepared to engage in public debate is that we don’t know what they think, and importantly, we don’t know why they think it. They may be working on incorrect information or assumptions. If we know what they are, there is a chance to put them right by providing more information.
There is as well a widespread perception that the staff are running the show, the tail wagging the dog. The councillors are accused of lacking the will or the ability to do other than follow, and indeed follow silently.
A way forward
Many of these problems are not hard to solve, but they will need councillors of good sense and with the courage to insist on a more collaborative approach to decision-making.
Neither the councillors nor the staff should see themselves as all knowing. They must be more inclusive, accept the benefits of tapping into the wisdom of the community, and seek expert advice from varying sources. Of course this runs the risk that the community may disagree with you, but if the councillor’s ideas are good enough, if he or she has the capacity both to argue a case and to take on board new ideas, the better view should prevail. What matters after all is getting the best result.
My approach will be to consult often and early. Certainly with major planning documents in particular, this must include extensive public consultations open to everyone. Such consultations will throw up ideas, possibilities, problems and issues which a limited circle might miss.
We must maintain a collaborative decision-making style. This needs a mix of community, councillors and staff working together in a way which respects everyone’s input. Hidden agendas need to be put aside. Contrary opinions need to be encouraged, not suppressed. Staff in particular need to feel they can speak honestly without putting their positions at risk. Councillors must tell the community what they think and why, even if they are in a minority.
Ideally, a consensus will be reached. If not then the council must decide, but at least everyone will know that they had a decent opportunity to advance their case.
I think my years in law, including working in negotiations and mediation and with a wide variety of people, will be an asset in implementing this approach. You can read about this background in more detail in the Why David Lewis section.
The problem – some examples
The Hervey Bay CBD Urban Renewal Plan and the Esplanade Masterplan are good examples. On the CBD plan, the consultation prior to preparation of the draft for public submissions was limited to a select few. Now these people were no doubt well-meaning, and should be consulted, but they are not the only ones who should be. The problems caused by this limited approach are well set out in the Chamber submission referred to above. See also my own submission on the plan.
The council did consult more widely on the Esplanade plan, but again the consultation was controlled and limited. I work on the Esplanade at Torquay. I know business people who were included in the consultations, but plenty of us were not. I found out about the consultation process after the draft was released.
A candidate for another division reported to me that she was invited to the consultation as a member of a local association, but when she asked if she could bring along other interested business people from her suburb she was told she could not. When she objected to some of the proposals at the workshop she was told that they were going to be included anyway.
The lack of consultation is a negative for everyone, including the councillors. The Sports Park proposal is a case in point. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this plan (see under Issues ), the failure to consult before the plan was announced meant that the sporting clubs were immediately off-side, and this disaffection spread throughout the community like a bushfire. A newspaper poll put those against at 79%. The council now faces the problem of turning this sentiment around.
The public submission process is similarly tightly controlled. For the Esplanade plan the consultation consisted of a multiple choice series of questions posed by the council seeking support for one or more of their proposals. The choices didn’t include objection to these proposals. It did not encourage any critical submission. It was frankly tendentious, obviously designed to prop up the end results the authors wanted to advance. And then the council managed to consider hundreds of submissions, receive an amended report, and pass it, all within about 5 weeks. Unsurprisingly there were only two or three amendments to the draft.
Unintentionally no doubt, two of the councillors gave a clue to the problem when they were appointed (in successive years) as deputy mayor. Each said, in nearly identical terms, that they saw their role as supporting the mayor and the council’s decisions. Neither mentioned consultation, nor advancing any ideas of their own. That is a pity, and we the community are the poorer for it.
This record compares most unfavourably with earlier councils who established their consultants in shop fronts where the public could access them and consult at will; and with committees like the Main Street Committee and the Harry Bechervaise consultations where regular public sessions were held over many months. It isn’t hard, it just needs the right approach.
I mentioned above the Chamber of Commerce submission on the Pialba CBD Plan. The Chamber gathered together a peer review panel of local experts and provided a thought-provoking and critical (albeit polite) submission which is well worth reading. See it at http://www.herveybaychamber.asn.au/basemedia/content/documents/26757.pdf
My own submission on that plan is in the Media releases section. See also various letters and media releases on the subject in the same section.