As a reminder, the previously scheduled 14 March meeting was cancelled at the 28 February meeting because four of the nine councillors - Innes, Nathan, Thomson and Pollock - will be away at that time, attending a tourism conference in Taree. While a quorum (of 5 councillors) would have been available, councillors agreed with the General Manager that it was “appropriate to cancel the meeting”. Of course, the meeting could have been moved to another day but that option was not proposed.
With the cancellation of the meeting, and therefore the absence of an agenda to dissect, I had intended addressing some of the many pressing yet constantly outstanding matters of council reform: matters which spend their time hidden from view.
But having just read through (some of) the recent, huge volume of correspondence from The Beagle’s much-time-to-spare contributors – with commentary ranging from the calm and rational, if not a little detached, to the just plain angry - I feel that I ought to give some specific attention to this fundamentally important subject, of the relationship between council and the community. The exchanges reached a new dimension when a prominent contributor, who I have regarded as one of the most informed, rational and articulate of all, had what must have been a brain snap and accused The Beagle’s editor of waging a “vendetta” against council; and not just your run-of-the-mill vendetta but an “inane” and “anile” one. He’s no lightweight and there were no punches pulled there. He took full advantage of the platform he condemned.
A few years back I attended several public meetings in Moruya concerned with the still (can you believe it!) unresolved LEP and witnessed a lot of anger from the overflowing crowds – all directed at council staff. Angry people emboldened by other angry people. It was the mob at work and it was ugly. In my book, there is no justification whatever for that sort of behaviour, no matter how genuine the grievances. We are meant to have evolved.
From my own experiences and through speaking with many people associated with council, I have no doubt at all that the vast majority of council staff are genuine, hard-working, competent people who, let us not forget, are also residents and ratepayers. The grievances that are given expression to by people like me are directed at the executive staff. They lead the way and set the culture. They are a relative handful, but they hold the reins. And to add to the challenges of dealing with them, I know firsthand that within this small group there are very decent people.
It has been the members of this group – and some of their subordinates - who have been the primary targets of the abuse hurled at public meetings. Since then, they have understandably relied on the assistance of facilitators. There is no excuse for the threatening and abusive behaviour that has been directed at them. Fortunately, in the medium provided by The Beagle, such abuse is censored. There are other ways of achieving the change we seek, and, in my view, The Beagle is playing an important role in this regard.
And so, returning to the bloggers and the view of our esteemed blogger: that The Beagle is on a vendetta against council. This view appears to be based on the constant flow of postings that condemn council in one way or another; and are no doubt seen as an open slather attack (vendetta) on council.
Sure, The Beagle makes those postings available for all to see – if people choose to view them – but it has not created them. The bloggers have created them. The editor could of course censor them out and leave only those that are not critical of council or are, at least, not so strident. Barring the necessary censoring of clearly abusive material, does anyone who enjoys the freedoms of a democratic society really think that people’s views ought to be filtered and censored according to the perceived sensibilities of council – or of any government agency for that matter? While I take exception to some of what is said by bloggers, who I regard as ‘base and bitter’, I am grateful that they are free to let the world know that they have no doubt that, for example, the capture and use of solar energy is part of a conspiracy (by whom I have no idea) or that the earth is flat.
It makes no sense at all to condemn The Beagle or its editor for the criticisms and, yes, many unjustified attacks, on council. Rational people will make up their own minds according to the evidence and arguments presented. If language is too colourful then we can all apply our own moderating factor according to our own judgement.
As to the anger issue, and the call for a tempered approach to problem solving with council, it is only those who have experienced the frustrations of dealing with some of council’s senior staff who can appreciate that such an approach will almost always be met with increased frustration – and increased, but contained, anger.
Anger arises for countless reasons – very often from injustices, real and perceived – but, fortunately, it can be a great source of energy in overcoming these injustices. Anger can also arise from being treated with disdain or contempt – in ways that insult our intelligence.
Over the years, I have had written and verbal responses from senior council staff that have been insulting, not in any overt way, but by their complete avoidance of the (seemingly difficult) questions asked, in the same way that a politician will avoid a question and thereby insult the intelligence of the listener. These responses have made me angry and I have said so in the chamber. And I have said that I am further angry that none of the councillors listening to the exchange were angry on my behalf. In the past, most of them have simply been mute bystanders.
The answer to dealing with these frustrations and consequent anger is in changing the culture within council – at the most senior levels. I have half joked in the chamber that there might be a need for a re-education camp that we could send certain individuals along to. These individuals, whom I know, are, as I have said, hard working and decent – and even have a sense of humour - but they simply don’t get it. They have the wrong attitude, to varying degrees, and do not appreciate just what it means to be an open and accountable servant of the public. Secrecy and defensiveness are the failings that need to be overcome. By existing, formal processes, this re-education – or replacement if necessary – can be achieved. But it will require the critically important involvement of our elected representatives. And that is a huge task in its own right. Our ‘vendetta blogger’ referred to the need to call upon our representatives rather than hammer the staff and he is absolutely right. The senior staff continue to run the show but change is in the wind; though it will occur only when councillors take charge.
A good start would be for councillors to meet as a group – a cohesive group - outside the chamber, without any staff present, on a regular basis. And identify their common ground – those matters upon which they can all agree. I have no doubt that there would be agreement on most of the issues that concern council and on all of the important governance issues.
If such a radical move were to occur then I am sure that at least two of our councillors would be too busy to attend. But that leaves a whole seven who can bring change about. Who will lead the way?
I will get onto other council matters – including those concerning reform – hopefully in the next few days.