Seven months to go: What have councillors actually achieved?

It is just seven months now until the next Local Government election. Councillors were given another year in office due to COVID and hopefully we won’t see a repeat that will extend their tenure beyond September 4th. It is already well known that most of the councillors intend to stand again. For those who do intend to stand it will be interesting to hear their electioneering claims of accomplishment over the past four and a half years. To help the councillors in their upcoming campaigns I have compiled a list of accomplishments and milestones. The councillors first Council meeting was on TUESDAY 11 OCTOBER 2016 where they took an Oath of Affirmation saying: I solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that I will undertake the duties of the office of councillor in the best interests of the people of the Eurobodalla Shire and the Eurobodalla Shire Council Note that there are two elements there:

in the best interests of the people of the Eurobodalla Shire

in the best interests of the Eurobodalla Shire Council The councillors might recall that first meeting had them select the community representative positions on the Mackay Park Sunset Committee. Back then they had no idea of the incredibly rocky road ahead that the Mackay Park project would be. Maybe this is a good time to recap. At that first meeting the Mackay Park Sunset Committee was selected. Their role is to develop and oversee the community engagement process during the investigation of opportunities for the development of the Batemans Bay Mackay Park precinct. In the evolution of the project councillors were advised by staff that there was widespread support for the Centre They were advised that the community had provided letters of support. They later discovered the letters of support were garnered without advising authors of the permanent removal of the 50 m pool. They have since discovered that many of those authors have retracted their support. Next thing they discovered in their tenure as councillor was that they were placed in the middle of what has become one storm after another with the community coming at them from every direction. Unknowingly, (or knowingly), they adopted a Draft Eurobodalla Aquatic strategy that was commissioned by staff and given to the very same consultant who they had prepare the initial Mackay Park plans and business case. Those councillors adopted that Strategy in a single vote, as part of a multi-item motion package and, knowingly endorsed a Strategy that had no public consultation and spelt the end, without any debate, of the Batemans Bay 50m pool. When they did so they failed in their obligations to serve in the best interests of the people of the Eurobodalla Shire and instead voted in the best interests of the Eurobodalla Shire Council endorsing staff recommendations. During their term they have continued to support the Mackay Park project knowing that it is embroiled in both State and Federal pork barrelled funding. They have chosen to ignore the evidence put before them that the Otium Business Case is flawed. They have also failed to acknowledge that staff have done all they can to ensure the business case they have put before funding bodies and agencies remains absolutely confidential. This has included considerable efforts by staff to block access to grant applications under official GIPA requests. Councillors were not made aware that that same flawed business case was initially denied to the Office of Local Government for their scrutiny and they continue to accept that the concerns raised around the projected incomes in that business case have still not passed muster with members of their very own Audit and Risk Committee. They have also failed to show any concern that an official letter written by the OLG that outlined their concerns over the long term affordability of the project was withheld from them prior to their voting to award the tender and commit $19 million of ratepayer funds to the $70 million project. During their four and a half years they have seen a $46 million project blow out to a $70 million Leisure Centre, burdened with the commitment of $19 million of ratepayers money that was voted on, by a majority, under a further veil of secrecy. Meanwhile councillors continue to be lambasted for their continued retreat behind declarations of “commercial in confidence” when it serves to suit; along with the very popular defence of “operational matters”. All too often, when staff are asked if Councillors have been made aware of important correspondence from agencies such as the Office of Local Government or the Information Commission the answer is NO. During their four and a half year term councillors have been advised, time and time again, by the general public, of key information that was not provided to them by staff who, when pressed, cite that it was an “operational matter”. During the councillor’s four and a half year term they have also been advised, by the public, of many occurrences where Council, and Council staff, have gone outside of the rules. There have been a variety of breaches, many of them quite serious such as using confidential ratepayer details for personal use. But due to the veils of secrecy that surrounds these breaches and the many Codes of Conducts raised, neither councillors, nor the general public are allowed to be informed of the outcomes. Those who are informed are threatened with consequences for revealing any findings. While there is little that councillors can do to change the rules in these matters there has been every opportunity for them to intervene and bring to order what appears to many in the community as a pervasive and toxic culture of that remains unchecked under their watch. While the reputation of the Eurobodalla Council is now in tatters, their own reputations as councillors, serving in the best interests of the people of the Eurobodalla Shire, has been well tarnished by association. Their continued majority endorsement of staff recommendations in such matters as the leasing of the Batemans Bay Community Centre, choosing to ignore the outcry of the community, is now widely considered as serving as rubber-stamp puppets in the best interests of the Eurobodalla Shire Council. If we look back over the last four and a half years you will see that the Council agendas are full of reports, policies and recommendations, all provided by staff employed to keep the wheels of Local Government greased. If you look in detail at these you will see that the staff have a set cycle of duties that are applied to serving the community, irrespective of who the latest councillors might be. If our councillors all stepped down tomorrow nothing would change and it would continue as business as usual under the direction of the General Manager or an Administrator. Their only role is to be seen as representative of the electors and to rubber stamp processes. That disempowerment from the process came on Day One when they delegated all but a few of their powers to the General Manager so that she could manage the day to day activities of Council as “operational matters”. The councillors might claim they endorsed this report or that strategy but they weren’t their reports or strategies. They might suggest they had some power over the budget and that they set priorities but the truth is that they did very little but to listen to staff rhetorically deliver their recommendations in briefings and to adopt the policies, strategies and recommendations put in front of them to endorse. This is evident in that only once, in the last four and a half years, have councillors gone, as a majority, against a staff recommendation and replaced it with their own decision that reflected community sentiment. Their role in diminishing the voice of the community by supporting unwarranted, draconian variations to, what was once best practice Public Forum and Public Access, is certainly one of the lowest points in their four and a half years. So what have they actually achieved? The release of balloons is banned at Eurobodalla Shire Council events and in Council-managed reserves. Well Done! They have endorsed Cat Bibs to be distributed free to owners of microchipped and registered cats in an effort to reduce domestic cats hunting native animals and birds. It was a great staff idea so well done to the councillors for rubber stamping it. And they have abolished paid parking in Batemans Bay. Bravo! What they haven’t achieved and cannot lay claim to is the State and Federal funding that has flowed into the region.

They cannot lay claim to the Bushfire recovery funds for destroyed infrastructure nor lay claim to the discounts availed around the waiving of fees and charges of which Council was generously compensated.

They cannot lay claim to the funding of:

The Batemans Bay Bridge

The Eurobodalla Regional Hospital

The Nelligen Bridge

or the unfunded election promises of the Spine Road Bypass and the Moruya Bypass

These projects would have gone ahead, irrespective of there being councillors. If anything, the councillors simply stamped any approvals as required by due process.

No doubt they are now more than aware that they played no role in the decisions of these projects, simply by the fact that they were not invited to the announcements and photoshoots. The Mayor's presence at these events implied councillor endorsement and consent. A photo of the announcement with the Mayor simply sealed the deal. Most often the Mayor's media releases imply councillor accord. Most often they are not consulted and only read of "their support" at the same time as the community.

The councillors role is to simply endorse anything the staff or State Government wants them to endorse that requires a councillor rubberstamp.

Take for example the $3 million granted for the Mogo Mountain Bike track, announced by the local member a week before public submissions had closed. That announcement rendered our councillors redundant. All that was now required of them was to vote in support of the project when it came back to the chamber, and to commit a 25% co-contribution as required by the grant.

Another example of their disempowerment is the recent announcement of $5.3 million for the Batemans Bay Walking Track project that was earmarked by the State and Federal Governments as worthy of being “fast tracked” to urgently inject funds into the local economy. The fast-track projects were meant to be shovel-ready, approved by Council and they required no business case enabling them to by-pass the key criteria that other "no fast-tracked" projects were to face when the Bushfire Recovery Fund opened to all comers to make application.

Yet Eurobodalla Council received $5.3m for an uncosted 33km project that was not shovel-ready in the least. In fact, they had made no application for the funds nor did they have any prepared route map, no business case, no environmental report nor any evidence of any true community engagement.

The Walking Trail was nothing more than a notional thought-bubble that had been endorsed as an idea worthy of exploring in the mid to long term. Instead, it has now been funded to the tune of $5.3 million and has further embroiled Eurobodalla Council in a Pork Barrelling imbroglio that is now gaining national attention.

So just what will our councillors, planning to run in 2021, claim as their own personal accomplishments in their term of office as they launch into their re-election campaign?