Water off a ducks back: Councillors go through the motions of engagement

Tuesday's (Feb 4th 2020) Public Access session saw the Eurobodalla Councillors meet publicly for the first time in two months. While they gather a week ahead of their Ordinary meeting to discuss the upcoming agenda and be briefed by staff over agenda issues the Councilors also take in, once a month, the presentations of the community during an hour long Public Access session. This session allows the public to present on any council related subject and speak for seven minutes. As was expected the speakers to Public Forum addressed Council on the recent bushfire events. In the gallery were the usual handful of public attendees who choose to witness the proceedings that would otherwise be unknown to the public. They sit in the gallery and watch the body language of the councillors, the general Manager and staff, they listen to the presentations, determine what questions they would ask of speakers and then, in dismay, find that most of the councillors are disengaged that it is usually the lone voice of Clr Anthony Mayne that asks a question out of respect for the speaker. Public access sessions go unrecorded, they are not minuted and while the Council state that they will give answers to questions raised this doesn't happen and the presentation papers offered (as is mandatory 24 hours before hand) are scanned and placed five layers deep on Council's website so that they can tick a box against community engagement and inclusion. Kathryn Maxwell, President of the Southcoast Health and Sustainability Alliance (SHASA), spoke first with her presentation, covering a range of issues aimed at "helping us all learn, as a community, from what has happened during this bushfire disaster and to improve our resilience and capacity to respond in the future." In addition, she had some questions for Council that had emerged from her group's many conversations directed to the Mayor and Councillors. Of core importance was her request for an independent, thorough review of Council’s response to the bushfire crisis in Eurobodalla Shire which should include experiences and input from the community. The importance of a call for an independent, thorough review did not go unnoticed by Councillor Anthony Mayne who has also suggested that Council proactively engage with its community and step outside its comfort zone to listen to the community and to engage with them, even if it means having to face the mounting criticisms from residents and ratepayers disappointed in the General Manager who appear to be missing in action. While the councillors would have preferred to have heard from a presenter who might tell them what a great job they (as COUNCIL) did during the emergency weeks, seeking to quell the flames by dismissing community criticism as petty over issues of tip fees it wasn't to be as they sat through three other critiques of their inactions. Lisa Cornthwaite of Bodalla presented a heart felt message from her own experiences saying in part "There is no doubt the events during and post fire threats have traumatised us." "They have made me think about how we do things and more importantly how we could be doing things. I have been particularly disturbed by the way in which issues raised by the community are being received; specifically, from my own recent experience it would appear that emotion has suppressed the ability to look at these issues raised with objectivity." Janelle Day of Our Town Our Say then presented with an overview of the public meeting her group had held on February 1st in Tomakin to capture and present the sentiment of the community in regards to observations, concerns and possible actions Council might like to learn of as part of any review of their role in the emergencies. By the end of her presentation it was clear that the councilors had had enough of the public having the audacity to come in to their chambers and berate them for being less that prepared, for failing to communicate, for failing to review and resolve and for failure to provide leadership to their community. Fortunately the Emergency Operations Manager, Warren Sharpe was not in the room to hear this disappointment in COUNCIL because it was only he, as an Operational Emergency Manager, who did in fact shine during the emergencies taking a leadership role in calmly informing and including the community in video updates and public presentations of the status of the fires. In turn the Council's Communications Manager was not present in the chamber. In her seconded role she had ensured the communications of the Emergency Centre were regularly updated and dispatched to the media and community. It was noted during the Public Access that her commitment was recognised for that vital role. Sadly however for her, there were no COUNCIL communications offered for dispatch on Council matters from the General Manager. Unlike Bega Council there was no sign of Council leadership forthcoming during the critical first weeks; only to come about after the event, as a reaction rather than proactively. Universally across the shire the primary criticism of the events was in the communications, their deliver, the failure of technology and the short comings of the messages. Yet Eurobodalla Councillors refused to assemble for more than a month to review their roles, actions or shortfalls and now refuse to initiate a review at all declaring that Plans and Processes are periodically reviewed as will be their Disaster Plan. In due course. In the fullness of time. The presentation by Lei Parker (me) was hard hitting of COUNCIL. Not the individuals, but the COUNCIL as a whole that made clear that whilst the staff at the grass roots level had risen to the occasion along with the community as a whole the COUNCIL had sorely failed its role. It is apparent that Eurobodalla Council has NO intention of carrying out a review and that their presence to hear speakers at Public Access and Public Forum has become both token and reluctant with any criticism (positive or otherwise) being little but water off a ducks back. Their attendance at these sessions is not mandatory, They are emailed the presentations 24 hours before hand to digest, to research and to consider what questions they might like to offer - and than on the day sit there bored, reading the words from their devices as the speaker presents, line by line, word by word ... offering few if any questions. At least the days of seeking an extension of time to present are gone. back then you spoke for five minutes with a possible extension of three if the vote of councillors allowed. With Brown and Thomson adamant that they would not allow any extension ("five minutes is long enough for anyone") and Nathan saying that those who spoke added no weight to an issue above those who wrote in with a submission thereby negating their bothering to speak at all. In the end the voting of an extension of time became a farce with two votes for and seven against any speaker who dared to challenge Council. Now they have seven minutes with no extension. But still they show indifference.

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