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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Pussy footing and teeth pulling: but in the end the community had its day at Council

It might take pussyfooting and diplomatically skirting around what should be said but eventually, like pulling teeth, it there is a result in the end. Today’s Council meeting began with a Mayoral Report. The community were advised in the upcoming agenda that there wasn’t a Mayoral Report so, as you might expect, they were surprised to learn there was one when a copy was held aloft at 9:30am during the Council’s monthly Public Access session. The speaker, Bernie O'Neil, of the group a Better Eurobodalla, offered a preamble to her presentation by saying it would have made a difference to her presentation if she, like the rest of the community, had read the Mayoral Report so as to be able to speak to it. Without suggesting that the retention was on purpose to limit public comment the fact that it wasn’t out in the open by way of being in the Agenda reminds me one of the most dastardly acts committed by a previous Eurobodalla Mayor who introduced a 1600 word Mayoral Report and gave Councillors 15 minutes to read it and digest it before being asked to vote on it. That loathsome act was only beaten by a previous Mayoral Report that was only revealed to Councillors whilst they were in a Confidential session during a Council meeting. Again, the community had no prior knowledge of the contents or the recommendation and, as such, could not make presentation for (or against) if they chose. Maybe it is time for Mayoral Minutes to be published in full on Council agendas, for openness, transparency and community inclusion. The reason of the Mayoral Report was because of an “administrative error” around the word MUST. But not just one administrative error but a string of them. The first was that the public were advised of proposed changes in a policy. To make it easier Council highlighted these changes. Happily the much debated word “encouraged” was not highlighted. The community breathed a sigh of relief because once, during Council’s recent toxic era, the draconian word MUST was mandated. Keeping true to their electioneering promises the new Councillors moved swiftly to drive that stinking remnant from the old policy and replace it with “encouraged”. This was confirmed by way of the new code, put on exhibition, that clearly showed that “encouraged” remained, as the word was there and it wasn’t highlighted. We move ahead to the “final” policy put before Council at the June meeting to find that MUST had reappeared. Gone was encouraged, replaced by MUST. How? It turns out it was added as an “administrative error due to a suggestion made by staff in their submission (along with the submissions made by the community in regards to the highlighted elements). Oddly, a summary of the submissions was included in the report to council including the suggestions of the staff BUT their suggestion to reinstate the word MUST wasn’t in that summary. The reason? An “administrative” error. The appearance of the word MUST raised the hackles of the community and, by way of councillor representation, bought the issue to the Council Chamber. Seeking clarity the Mayor and the GM were assured that the word MUST had been publicly exhibited and that the community was in error when they say that it wasn’t. This statement of “fact” turned out to be “in error”, however it had been delivered to the debate and, following further discussion, the word must found its way back int to policy. Today’s Mayoral Minute made reference to the staff error (nor multiple errors) and sought to double down on Council’s apparent intent that presenters MUST act rather than be ‘encouraged”. Rising to the occasion was Councillor Tubby Harrison who offered a counter motion that was to simply reinstate the original that everyone had agreed to being “encouraged” and to move on. Given the spotlight on the councillors and the “administrative errors” claimed the vote to support the motion was a no brainer. Bernie O'Neil, an ABE (A Better Eurobodalla) speaker during the Public Access session, earlier that morning might have offered guidance to the councillor’s decision when they offered some sage advice “Errors happen and staff, and the council, must own errors when they occur and correct the record and any decisions made. This issue will not go away with an apology because legal requirements must be met. Good governance relies on complying with legal requirements and on decision making that is based on truthful information”.

All in all an encouraging outcome. The next topic of the day was a Notice of Motion delivered by Councillor Anthony Mayne. Clr Mayne put forward the motion:


What was more than evident was what sat unwritten between the lines. In a nutshell it revealed that Eurobodalla Council had dropped the ball on Emergency preparedness and its own obligations as well as failing community expectations. Each of the elements in the motion above are LONG overdue. After the 2019-2020 fires there was every opportunity for Council to assess what didn’t work and where there could be improvements made ahead of the next emergency. But they didn't and were cloth-eared to any community request to do so. In a nutshell they did not want to be answerable nor did they want their shortfalls and failures openly discussed. The Councillors at today's forums were again reminded by members of the community of the shortcomings identified during the last event that still remain unaddressed. Dr Brett Stevenson Co-Convenor, A Better Eurobodalla presented the following, in part: When ABE presented to the previous Council in June 2021 regarding disaster preparedness and recovery, it was clear that both our neighbouring LGAs of Shoalhaven & Bega Valley were significantly more advanced than the Eurobodalla Shire in their recovery and emergency preparedness planning.

It is therefore timely to review the situation after the passage of another two years, and ascertain whether the situation has changed. As part of responsibilities designated under the NSW Emergency Services & Rescue Act, the General Manager of the relevant Council (or their staff nominee) chairs the Local Emergency Management Committee, which is responsible for producing the Local Emergency Management Plan in each area.

It is notable that the current version of Eurobodalla Emergency Plan was created in 2016, with minor changes and updates to ABS statistics in 2019, and has not been reviewed in wake of the Black Summer fires, and nor does it mention the word “pandemic”. The plan also indicates it is required to be reviewed every 3 years, meaning it is already overdue for renewal.


In contrast, our northern neighbour’s current Shoalhaven Emergency Management Plan was signed off in 2021, and has been updated to take account of the Black Summer bushfire season, as well as recognising the occurrence of pandemics. The current Bega Valley Emergency Plan was last updated in April 2021, and includes consideration of the implications of a pandemic.

Furthermore, given that the then Director Infrastructure’s IRR22/024 report to Council last September referenced nine natural disaster flood events since the Black Summer bushfires, it would be expected that the Eurobodalla Shire Emergency Flood Plan would be a priority document for emergency preparedness. However, this is not the case, with Volume 1 being prepared in 2013, and volumes 2 and 3 each being prepared in 2006. It is notable that the Flood Plan states that “the plan is to be reviewed no less frequently than every 5 years”, so the plan has clearly failed its own benchmark. In contrast, Shoalhaven and Bega Valley have found it within their capacities to produce current flood management plans. The current Bega Valley Flood Management Plan was signed off in March 2021, while the Shoalhaven plan was authorised in October 2022.

So it doesn’t seem to matter whether it is fire, flood or pandemic, the Eurobodalla’s current emergency management documentation lags our neighbouring LGAs, and is significantly out of date in many respects. This apparent inability to update current emergency management planning tools in the Eurobodalla is a critical governance issue which needs to be promptly addressed in order to both discharge legislative responsibilities and contribute to community confidence, well-being and resilience.

As outlined in ABE’s June 2021 presentation to ESC, community involvement in disaster recovery and preparedness is a key objective of the NSW Recovery Plan meant to guide efforts in the Eurobodalla and across the state. However, little of substance has been achieved in community disaster recovery planning in the Eurobodalla over the last 2 years. ESC has only prepared one Bushfire Action Recovery Plan in April 2020, which failed to explain how it was actually planning to achieve its stated objective to “Build community resilience and capability. The Eurobodalla Bushfire Recovery Plan has never been updated, despite page 6 proclaiming “This is a working document and is updated regularly”. Councillor Mayne’s NoM today is a modest but welcome step in the right direction to address significant long running deficiencies in emergency preparedness and building community resilience, and ABE urges Councillors to support it. However, much more remains to be done if we are to bring our shire’s level of preparedness up to a standard commensurate with escalating 21st century hazards and risks.

Our neighbouring Councils have provided valuable templates of what can be achieved, and the Eurobodalla community looks to our Council to fulfil its legislated governance responsibilities and moral obligations to help us achieve these objectives." With the councillors voting unanimously for the motion the opportunity is there now to revisit the good things done and the things that could have been done, or be done better, from the last event. In order to do so Council needs to accept justifiable criticism rather than defiantly refusing to engage in any post event dissection that might reveal their own shortcomings. Today's presenters took turns to inform the council of what the community have done to date. By their presentations it was made all the clearer of what Council had failed to do. Instead of being leaders the council had, by their own example, sat on their hands and as a result our community has lost both momentum and opportunity to prepare for the next emergency event. SHASA presentation to Council on 25 July 2023. The need to prepare for the 2023/24 bushfire and heatwave season The fact of this motion from Clr Anthony Mayne, coming forward today, indicates that many of those shortcomings still exist, either with Council or with State Agencies that should also be answerable for their own deficiencies and their failures to put in place solutions in readiness for the next major emergency event. And as to the time line for what one might imagine is an issue with some degree of urgency - Council will now be briefed in September. My advice: don't rely on the council to have put in place any of the actions proactively achieved by our neighbouring shires. Instead make your own Emergency Plan, undertake your own Bushfire Preparation Plan and hope for the best, just as we did last time, with out of date plans and sub-optimal evacuation facilities that were not fit for task.


Comments


NOTE: Comments were TRIALED - in the end it failed as humans will be humans and it turned into a pile of merde; only contributed to by just a handful who did little to add to the conversation of the issue at hand. Anyone who would like to contribute an opinion are encouraged to send in a Letter to the Editor where it might be considered for publication

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