LAST TUESDAY’S MEETING
Last Tuesday’s meeting of council was, again, a very smooth, even staid, affair. Mayor Innes continues to show herself to be a very competent chairperson. She kept order, facilitated and engaged in debate, even if just by way of commentary - with ease. At one point, during the public forum presentations (at the 42 minute mark of the video record of the meeting) she called upon staff to expand upon the matter at hand but on being advised (seemingly by the general manger) that such explanations are “normally” reserved for when the matter comes up for debate, she deferred further explanation until then – though, as chairperson she is of course not bound by such protocol. After all, public forum presenters may not be able to stay on until the matter comes up for debate. And come the debate, councillors will have already heard what has been said earlier – during public forum.
I appreciate her obvious willingness to engage with and provide explanations to presenters. This has been missing in the past, when presenters would be blankly told “your concerns have been noted and you will receive a written response”, or words to that effect, without any involvement from the chair. This is certainly a step forward.
There was however one matter of interest – referred to by Councillor McGinlay – in the context of the cancellation of the 14 March meeting (at the 50:20 time mark of the recording). He referred to what most people are probably unaware of: that councillors and staff have a pre-meeting ’meeting’. This exchange lasts for about 30 minutes – just before the 9.30 am non-agenda (Public Access) session kicks off at 9.30 am – during which there is an opportunity for councillors to raise any ‘issues’ that might otherwise appear in the course of the meeting. In this way, clarity on such issues can be sought and possibly provided - and unwanted surprises avoided. I can see the value in this opportunity, of a last minute review of the agenda – for both councillors and staff - however there can be the danger of ‘a position’ being arrived at prior to the meeting itself. Of course, the proper time and place for decisions by council is at the meeting itself. We rely on councillors to judge whether any lines are being crossed at these preliminary meetings – of possible quasi-decisions, or positions, being formed prior to the meeting itself.
While it is pleasing to see things run so smoothly it is also disconcerting. Councillors are so fully occupied with the agendas that staff constantly put in front of them, along with the associated briefings a week before the meeting - and all that goes on in between (committee meetings, conferences, etc) – that only the most industrious and dedicated of them will be able to make any inroads into reform of council – of the way council conducts itself: in particular, its administrative processes, and the way it attends to the associated requirements of transparency and accountability. In short, matters of governance. Even a cursory read of the Ombudsman’s Good Conduct and Administrative – Guidelines for state and local government, will quickly expose where reforms need to be made.
The workload placed on councillors – and taken on by those who are conscientious - can have the effect of muting even the best of intentions for change. Just keeping one’s head above water is challenge enough. Yet, in spite of this and to their credit, several councillors have, and are, bringing about constructive change.
During this past week, there has been a continuation of an enormous amount of correspondence between various Beagle contributors: some erudite, some base and bitter and much in between. As well, there have been a couple of bloggers daring me to become involved in the blogging. I prefer to avoid pointless slinging matches. When, in the past, I did get (moderately) involved in blogging (on the Bay Post), I soon learnt that it was a complete waste of time and effort in trying to persuade the base and bitter to a different point of view. As we know, there are none so blind or so deaf as those who refuse to see or hear. I am fortunate in being able to have my say in this column. People can and do say what they like in response – if anything – and after the moderator cleans up that which needs it, we are all provided with a verbal form of combat sport: all very healthy for the participants and entertaining for most of us.
In no particular order, here are some of the matters which have given rise to correspondence by bloggers.
Expressions of Interest for the use of council-controlled land
During the past week, “Tricia”, has addressed council’s call for expressions of interest (EOIs) for the use of council-controlled land – in response to my comments on the matter. She has reminded us of the madness of just what council would be required to do (according to its own Code of Practice) should two parties, such as hockey teams or football teams, want to use the same space at the same time on the same day. They would be required to compete in a tendering process; but, as Tricia, tells us, that process requires the application of specified selection criteria, which could hardly be more inappropriate. For convenience, here is what she had to say, in part:
In regard to the hockey team and football team vying for the same venue on same date via tender - which is simply ridiculous, even more ludicrous is that their 'tenders' would be judged on:
1. Level of economic activity they will generate - money, development, overnight accommodation (30%)
2. Level of future growth and economic activity (20%)
3. Sustainability - will they need external monetary support in future.(25%) 4. Other community benefits - level of community participation, donations, education support & dev, support health programs (25%)
75% of the selection criteria is based on MONETARY OUTCOMES. 25% is based on what the shire's community get out of it.
Obviously, the selection criteria for tenders is directed towards commercial activities/organisations (as stated in LGA, ICAC Guidelines, Tendering Guidelines for NSW Local Govt, Local Govt (General Regulation) 2005).
How can council select between NON commercial tenders on commercial grounds?
Prolific contributor Jeff de Jager has asked: - Re the call for EOI's for uses of council controlled lands - do you think this might see the opening up [of] old wounds like Huntfest and Moruya markets? I have no doubt that that would – and will – happen. There is a lot more in store on this subject, that’s for sure.
Allan Brown has asked where one might find the delegates’ report on the National Roads Congress held in Toowoomba last year. I don’t know, but he might care to make use of his particular communication channels and let us all know. This is what he had to say:
Peter mentioned junkets in the above, wonder if he can tell me where I can see the delegates report from the National Roads Congress in Toowoomba last year or even what the recommendation from it is?
Conference delegates should be required to make some sort of presentations at conferences.
I certainly agree that this report should be readily available, as should all such reports. I have had a look on council’s website and started my inquiry by typing in “National Roads Congress” in the search window and was then presented with a list of possibilities, none of which provided anything on a report – as did other combinations of key words. The search ‘facility’ on council’s website can be quite a character-building experience in patience, tolerance and understanding.
The apparent absence of a report on the National Roads Congress begs the obvious question of just what administrative processes are in place for ensuring that such reports are produced, in a timely manner, as a matter of course.
The master of rhetorical questions, Jeff de Jager, has asked the following (of me) on this matter:
... as well as wanting to see their reports being tabled promptly after such events, do you agree that before councillors' go off to conferences and the like, there should be made known publicly, details of discussions of the agenda and points listed to be raised on behalf of council?
Who could not agree with these reasonable expectations? Requests for such information have been made over many years. That this, apparently, still does not happen is yet another example of poor process - that needs reform.
The Batemans Bay Bowling Club site
While Jeff de Jager (again!) is not quite sure if he found last Sunday’s Council Matters informative, he had the following to say on the Bowling Club issue:
Thanks for the read. Very informative, I think .... Re the purchase of Batemans Bay Bowling Club - do you have an opinion on it per se or on its not being mentioned in the audit (alas, poor ARIC?) committee's report?
My opinion, if I could form one, on the purchase of the site, on the wisdom or otherwise of the expenditure of $2.7 million of public money and on just what the possibilities for the development of the site are, is one that would be very much based on (my) ignorance of the matter. There is no information that I can find that assists in forming views on these questions. I am unaware of any feasibility studies or plans having been undertaken prior to the purchase, including what the cost might be beyond those already incurred, before any return might be expected. The explanation for this information not being available to the public is either that it does not exist or that it does exist but is being kept from the public. Either way, there are questions that must be answered by council. This is a prime example of an absence of transparency and accountability: a subject ripe for the Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee (ARIC) to investigate.
And what of the so-called sunset committee set up to consider just what ought to happen with the site. Not a murmur. That is plainly unacceptable. Council should be keeping the community up-to-date with just what is going on with this committee.
Returning to Jeff’s questions, as I have said, there is simply no question that “poor ARIC” should – must – investigate this matter, of the process by which the purchase of the site, for $2.7 million, took place. Even a quick read of the Audit Committee’s Terms of Reference, especially according to the roles within “Control Framework” and “Internal Audit”, reveals that such an investigation is not only highly appropriate but that it is just the sort of thing ARIC should have undertaken. It’s certainly not too late for the committee to undertake such an investigation. ARIC’s annual report, produced at the 14 February 2017 meeting of council, lists a number of investigations that have taken place. The absence of the Bowling Club Site issue is conspicuous. It’s very odd, but not entirely surprising, that I cannot find any of the committee’s annual reports at the ARIC page. It’s up to councillors to insist on such investigations – and to make the results of them known to the public – other than through the mechanism of “referred transparency” (as described in the 20 February Council matters) in which to ‘make available or to keep secret’ is left up to staff.
Follow-up on the removal of paid parking from the Bay
In his usual, articulate way, Jeff de Jager, unrelentingly, raises many matters with council; but his eminently reasonable questions and suggestions generally, if not always, fall on deaf or disinterested ears. Take for example his latest efforts on the matter of the abolition of paid parking at Batemans Bay.
Late last month he wrote the following letter to council:
Prior to Christmas 2016, Council removed pay parking in Batemans Bay reportedly to improve visitor/resident impressions of being welcomed into the CBD area, to enhance access to shops and other businesses and to revitalise nearby businesses.
While the potential loss of revenue from the meters was not a major concern, in principle councillors should know, and ratepayers should be advised, if the results of the decision to abolish pay parking were in line with the desired outcomes.
Would you please advise if such a report has been done and, if so, will it be made public in the near future and will it quantify and compare the cost/benefits for this recent peak period with past trading periods – e.g. meter income, ranger compliance/activity and costs, revenue from time parking offences and levels of business activity, etc.. While the latter may be difficult to accurately determine, it is likely that retailers would happily supply anecdotal comments.
I look forward to your response……………..and the report!
The response he received advised him that the recommendation to abolish paid parking did not include a requirement for a report on the effects of that abolition to be prepared and that such a report would only be prepared if requested by council. And so he followed up by asking councillors to indeed make such a request of staff and said that he finds it most unsatisfactory that such follow up studies with reports back to Council are not conducted as matter of course as responsible management practices. May I also suggest that you request that a policy be implemented to automatically provide to Council effectiveness analysis of such decisions unless specifically otherwise directed in the relevant motions.
I expect that some, if not many people, would hold the view that such a follow-up would be a waste of time and money. But that would be a simplistic response. How much time and money would be involved in ascertaining, even if in general terms, whether the desired outcomes were achieved over the recent holiday period? I would have thought, not too much. But, at the same time, I am well aware that many of council’s staff members are genuinely overworked and are hard pressed in keeping up with their stock-standard duties, without looking for ways to increase the load. So, maybe management needs to look at a re-prioritisation of tasks so that follow-up studies, such as the one suggested here, do become a matter of course, regardless of whether councillors make specific requests for them. As we all know, there can be no improvement in any endeavour without assessing the results of efforts made: of policy implementation and of the various activities undertaken. Otherwise, we are afloat without a rudder. Again, ARIC could involve itself in such matters – of improved efficiencies. If it does not, then maybe councillors could initiate a request for the services of the NSW Auditor-general in seeking assistance in improving the way things are done at council.