The next council meeting won’t be held until Tuesday 9 May and so we are without the usual fortnightly agenda to look through. It is therefore a good time to address the ever-increasing list of undone tasks - the numerous loose ends.
Some (just a few) of the loose ends
I am reminded of the numerous loose ends on many occasions but always when I see the town signs. They are still there. We hear nothing about them. As far as I know, none of the new councillors are happy with them and most want them done away with. So why have we heard nothing? Staff’s response to criticisms of the signs – or of most things that are difficult to answer, for that matter - can be summarised by the response provided to local artist/designer Toby Whitelaw, following his 26 July 2016 public forum presentation on the subject. A civil, verbal reaction to this maddening response is surely not possible. I have had similar responses over the years and have expressed my frustrations and anger in the council chamber – only to be told ever so calmly by a totally disengaged mayor at the time, that my concerns “have been noted”!
Is it possible that a review of those ridiculous, ugly signs has actually been undertaken and is nearing completion and that we are about to be told of the outcome – that they will indeed be replaced? Of course not! On reading Toby Whitelaw’s presentation, you will see that in fact the signs are in breach of council’s own Town Signs Policy.
The Bowling Club
And what’s happening with the Batemans Bay McKay Park Precinct (the Bowling Club)?
On 5 April we were advised on council’s website that “Its early days and we’re still very much in the phase of sharing ideas and gathering information.”
Yet, on 29 April it will have been a full year since council purchased the Batemans Bay Bowling Club site, for $2.7 million (if my memory serves me correctly) – by a process that really does raise serious questions about proper process. Will the Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee (ARIC) ever look into this? Clearly not – unless staff request that it do so. But why would they do that – to have their own work investigated?
We could be (very) surprised and find that councillors themselves direct that it be done – by way of a Notice of Motion.
According to the terms of reference for the “Batemans Bay Mackay Park Precinct Sunset Committee”, its role is to:
1. To assist Eurobodalla Shire Council with the investigation of opportunities for the development of the precinct.
2. To develop and oversee the community engagement process during the investigation of opportunities for the development of the Batemans Bay Mackay Park precinct.
Unsurprisingly, the Terms of Reference do not allow the sunset committee to make recommendations to council.
According to standard project management processes, a timeline for the completion of the many different phases of the development of a project of this size would normally be provided in the early stages – even if in rough draft form. But I have not been able to find such a timeline. Nor have I been able to find the minutes of the committee’s first (and only thus far?) meeting on 2 November 2016. Why would they not be readily available?
Access to information, legal advice and costs – we are not alone
We are not alone in our battles to extract information from council. Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association has its battles too. Just like our own council, the Bega Valley Shire Council blithely incurs very significant costs, born by the ratepayer, in paying legal fees to do whatever it takes to withhold information. Of course, this phenomenon, of government agencies – from local, to state to federal – of withholding information that ought to be available to the public, as a matter of course, is universal. To state the obvious, it’s all about ‘covering arse’.
I ask staff to please read, from cover to cover, the publication that I will be making frequent reference to: the NSW Ombudsman’s publication Good conduct and administrative practice, April 2017. In particular, in the context of access to information, Module 14 should be read; specifically, the Introduction and section 3:
The people of NSW have a right to know what has been or is being done or contemplated by their government (both state and local), unless there are good and lawful reasons not to. The importance of transparency mechanisms such as public access to records, the giving of reasons, and of practices which support this, like good recordkeeping and rights of review, cannot be overstated. All are essential to democracy: unless the public knows what government is up to, citizens are not in a position to challenge, criticise, correct or otherwise hold their government to account. Conversely, experience has shown that a climate of secrecy is conducive to corruption, incompetence, inefficiency and maladministration.
The main mechanism to enable members of the public to obtain access to information held by the NSW Government is the GIPA Act. One of the purposes of the GIPA Act is to maintain and advance a system of responsible and representative democratic government that is open, accountable, fair and effective. The stated object of the GIPA Act is to open government information by authorising and encouraging the proactive public release by agencies, and giving members of the public an enforceable right of access to information that has not been proactively released. Release of information is to be restricted only when there is an overriding public interest against disclosure.
This legislative presumption in favour of disclosure is shared by the courts. Former Chief Justice of Australia, Sir Anthony Mason, noted in a High Court judgment that the disclosure of government information must be viewed ‘through different spectacles’ to the disclosure of personal or commercial information (Commonwealth of Australia v John Fairfax and Sons Ltd (1980) 147 CLR at p.51), ’that the court will determine the government’s claim to confidentiality by reference to the public interest. Unless disclosure is likely to injure the public interest, it will not be protected’ (at p.52). Effectively, the legal position on access to information reverses the onus of proof – the government must demonstrate that disclosure is likely to injure the public interest rather than the applicant needing to demonstrate why disclosure should be made.
I have quoted from this magnificent publication – initially brought to my attention some time ago by the dogged and articulate Jim Bright – because it says exactly what I and others are constantly trying to have staff understand, to accept and to put into practice. This request is of course directed to senior staff – lead by the General Manager. It is up to councillors to require staff – through the General Manager - to adopt the guidelines being referred to here. Please work together and do your job.
A recent letter to The Beagle by the intrepid Coral Anderson addresses the issue of the legal costs incurred in fighting tooth and nail against disclosure of information. She calls upon ARIC to investigate the matter. We need a full disclosure of not just the information sought but also of just how much ratepayer funds are being squandered in fighting against the disclosure. Again, it is up to councillors to take control. Those who are unable or unwilling to do so, should not be there.
The Gerondal matter
And just as the town signs always turn my mind to the intransigence and unaccountability of (some of the senior staff of) council, so too does my seeing perfectly good building materials on rural properties, lying about the place, turn my mind to the Gerondal matter. According to information that has come my way - including directly from the late Monica Gerondal - and which I have sought, such materials on the Gerondal Bingie property were declared as waste and simply confiscated and dumped.
Much has been said and written about this matter but thus far there has been no review of the processes that gave rise to the many criticisms made of these processes. Why would ARIC not look into this? Why would councillors not request that that be done?
Ian Hitchcock’s 1 February 2017 letter to The Beagle addresses aspects of this matter but there is, I understand, much more that is worthy of inquiry. Let us not forget that ARIC stands for Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee. It is surely nonsense to suggest that the process by which Gerondal matter was conducted could not be (substantially) improved upon. It is up to ARIC to examine what took place and to then advise on what improvements could and should be made.
On a positive note!
It is not all doom and gloom.
The fact is that here in the Eurobodalla we live in paradise – to varying degrees – whether by the beach or in the bush. And it is also a fact that our council staff maintain the shire very well indeed. Those responsible for keeping the shire ticking over as well as it does – and keeping the recreation areas looking first class – really do deserve high commendation; and I for one am genuinely grateful to them.
It’s always good to finish on a positive note – when possible!
Many lose ends and distinct evidence of fraying might see a need for all councillors to "person the halyards" and turn the ship to port for an much needed overhaul. Will the skipper turn the wheel or will the second mate remain in charge on the poopdeck and continue the good ship's course towards foul weather and a waiting reef?