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In droves they came: Your council meets in marathon session: 14 August 2018

I had committed to our Editor, who is away in some other place, that I would attend this morning’s Council meeting. I was ready for it to be another two hours of my life that I would not get back but in the event, it was a meeting as full of thrills and spills as any Council meeting could be. As with the last Council meeting there were high points and low points and the low points were particularly low. I arrived to find people pouring into the Council chamber. Most were there to express their views, either by speaking or by their presence, on the Rural Lands Strategy (RLS). That this matter is important to many of the citizens of the Shire was evidenced by their presence in large number. I counted about 100 people many of whom keenly felt the need to make their voices heard and many of whom (including me) were appropriately admonished by the Mayor for speaking from the gallery. There are not 100 seats in the chamber and the door to an adjoining conference room had to be opened to accommodate the masses. Your Councillors are made of sterner stuff than I am. I left the meeting at 1315 after item 7 of 18 items. Perhaps your Councillors are still deliberating even as I write.

Council meetings start, at least nominally, at 1000. At 0930 the Council assembles to hear speakers who wish to avail themselves of the Public Access Session – Non Agenda Items and who have registered to do so. There were four such speakers today speaking about logging in the Corunna forest, the lack of consultation on the RLS, and the prospects for democracy and equality in society (and our Council’s contribution to the diminution of each).

Public speakers are allocated 5 minutes after which Councillors can vote on whether to grant another 3 minutes. There are two points to bear in mind when coming to terms with this restriction. The first is that if the speaker has something worth saying then saying it clearly and succinctly within 5 minutes is a good approach. The second is that failing to grant the additional 3 minutes could mean that the Council is open to accusations that it is stifling debate. Today was the first time I observed speakers being denied the extension. The public gallery was not impressed with this restriction on people’s wish to express themselves.

After these “non-agenda” items, the Council meeting gets underway. So far as the public gallery was concerned the main item on the agenda was Councillor Mayne’s notice of motion that “Council defer voting on the Draft Rural Lands Strategy and that Councillors and Council staff meet with the relevant NSW Government Departments that are objecting to the Strategy to try and satisfy their objections.” Eight members of the public spoke on Cllr Mayne’s motion and a further two very patient souls had to wait to speak to the item on the Gundary Oval District Sports Park Landscape Masterplan. But it was the Rural Lands Strategy that was going to provide the most entertainment and so it did, depending on one’s view of entertainment.

There were some lighter moments. A speaker on the Swift Parrot was concerned that decisions that Council planned to make would affect this endangered bird. Cllr Tait asked where the swift parrot nested. The speaker replied that the bird nests in Tasmania. Well then. said the Councillor, you should take the matter up with the Tasmanian Government. I may well have heard a sillier comment but I am struggling to remember when.

Our eight speakers acquitted themselves well enough. A major theme of the submissions was that Council had failed to consult adequately, or perhaps even properly, on the development of the RLS. Now, Council has several problems that relate to community views on the RLS. The first is that the RLS’ gestation has been a long one, longer even than that of an elephant (which is two years). Its initiation predates the election of the current Council (the terms of reference for the development of the strategy were agreed on 2 October 2012) and it is clear that those members of the current Council who have been around for longer than two years have little or no patience for continuing the debate. The second problem is, as I remarked in my comments on the meeting of 31 July 2018, that the RLS is a massive document whose “Guide to the Rural Lands Planning Proposal … is over 8,000 words long and not particularly easy to navigate.”

People’s memories are short. It may be, as the Director of Planning and Sustainability Services assured us, that there has been extensive consultation about the strategy and its development over a period of time. Unfortunately, our memory is not that long. Communication is the hardest part of leadership and good management and it is the easiest part to compromise on. It is not a reasonable objective for communication to achieve unanimity but the fact that 100 people turned up to a Council meeting suggests that further work needs to be done on how the RLS is communicated. Councillor Mayne’s notice of motion was designed to put in place an approach to demonstrate that the current, I repeat current, concerns of the community are heard.

In developing the RLS, Council has had to take account of (we were told) “thousands” of submissions. This is a non-trivial task but some of these submissions rightly carry more weight than others; for example, a submission by the Rural Fire Service would cary more weight than any submission that I might make. This leads to a challenge. The administration needs to weigh its own views against the views of an external expert agency. Cllr Mayne made the point that the way in which differing professional opinions were weighed in the balance should be made public. He conceded that he had been briefed on these matters but commented that the briefings were confidential. And so, we turned to Cllr Mayne’s motion.

At this point we were witness to a piece of political skulduggery that tells us a lot about whether we have a Council that is interested in serving its own interests or the public interest. Cllr Pollock observed that Cllr Mayne’s motion referred to the “Draft Rural Lands Strategy” and he recollected that the previous Council had already voted on the Draft Rural Lands Strategy. Since the Draft Rural Lands Strategy has already been adopted by Council, Cllr Mayne’s motion made no sense. The Director of Planning and Sustainability Services confirmed that the Draft Rural Lands Strategy was approved by Council on 23 February 2016.

A quick look at these minutes in fact adds to the confusion of the lay on-looker for there we find Item PSR16/001 (Adoption of Rural Lands Strategy) which agreed to “adopt the Rural Lands Strategy attached to report PSR16/001 with the exception of those sections and recommendations related to the use of a Native Vegetation Overlay.” Now, PSR16/001 contains the three volumes of the RLS (Volume 2 is composed of ten papers). Volume 1 is dated February 2016. It is true that Cllr Pollock was right to point out that the motion as put was not consistent with extant decisions. On the other hand, presumably he was aware of this in advance of the meeting. Raising it before the meeting would have served the public interest rather better than the approach of attempting to belittle a fellow Councillor. Furthermore, I am surprised that the administration did not point out that the words of Cllr Mayne’s notice of motion needed to be adjusted. That is the role of a secretariat and I cannot understand why they failed to discharge that role.

There was a move to strike the motion but that was clearly not going to satisfy the public gallery and the Mayor, to her credit, proposed an adjournment to reword Cllr Mayne’s motion to maintain the sense of what he was proposing. The reworded motion asked that “Council not consider the planning proposal related to the RLS until the Councillors and staff have had an opportunity to meet … [a list of] … NSW Government representatives …” This motion was defeated in spite of a spirited and articulate peroration from Cllr McGinlay and a compelling summing up from Cllr Mayne.

The debate, however, was interesting with some significant input from the Mayor relating to the Kyla Park Grazing Lands. This had been raised at the 31 July 2018 meeting when Cllr Mayne asked about “concern within the Tuross community that the proposed amendments to the draft rural lands strategy may change the possible uses to this area." My recollection of the meeting was that an assurance was given that the current Council would not change its use. That is not what is minuted. Nonetheless it is not clear why the Mayor raised this, and not anything about any other parcel of land, unless it is to try to drive a wedge between one group and another. Cllr Brown felt it necessary to patronise Cllr Mayne by saying that he could not be expected to know certain things because he was new to Council. During the discussion Cllr Brown asked what the timeline was for reaching a decision on the RLS. Director of Planning and Sustainability Services assured Council that the date was very important and that the administration’s planning was geared toward that date … but he could not remember what it was. A member of his staff was able to confirm that it is April 2019 (though not which day in April).

And so, at about 1310, Cllr Mayne’e revised motion fell. The only votes for improved communication and transparency were Cllrs Mayne and McGinlay. The whole event was not an edifying experience and that matters because the subject matters. We may all have different views on the content of the RLS and on the planning proposal that is under consideration, but we should all be at least reasonably content with the process by which decisions are reached. Speaking to people on the steps outside, I cannot say that people are content.

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