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Byron Shire
September 16, 2021

Plan for ‘citizens panel’ ditched

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A Tweed Shire Council plan for a random, online ‘Citizens Panel’ of 800 residents to try to engage the community in its decisions, which was ridiculed by some when first mooted two years ago, has finally been killed off.

Councillors this week unanimously backed a staff recommendation not to set up the panel, which was a key part of council’s community engagement strategy adopted in September 2010 and which supporting councillors said would give a voice to the ‘silent majority’.

The aim of the panel, according to staff, was to ‘sample an unbiased and statistically representative portion of the community’ to provide ongoing comment and general feedback on various issues.

But staff this week concluded the selection of such a panel ‘would not maintain the statistical integrity needed to achieve the reliable public opinion “snapshot” the panel was intended to provide.

Not only that, funding and resourcing such an ambitious plan was a major problem, as new general manager David Keenan pointed out in his report, and would be better spent to further improve community consultation methods.

At the time it was adopted, then-mayor Kevin Skinner extolled the strategy as making the most of ‘online engagement’ but critics, including ratepayer groups, said it was another way of avoiding proper consultation with locals.

One council watcher described it as a strategy ‘designed to strangle community opinion rather than espouse it’.

In trying to create the citizens panel, staff wrote to the NSW Electoral Commissioner twice to request an electronic copy of the electoral roll in order to randomly choose residents for the panel.

But both requests were turned down on the grounds of public interest.

Databases

Council then considered random selection from its ratepayer database and its database for non-ratepayers living permanently in the Tweed, but ruled them out due to concerns the statistical ‘integrity’ would be undermined.

Reasons included that a disproportionate number of Tweed property owners would be on the panel and that relying on people to nominate meant the second database was likely to be dominated by ‘motivated’ residents who already used other forms of engagement and would be ‘contrary to the panel’s intention to achieve feedback from the broader community’.

Cr Dot Holdom said she had ‘always’ believed in trying to establish the citizens panel as a way of engaging the community.

But Cr Joan van Lieshout said ditching the panel was a ‘good move’ as she strongly believed it was the role or ‘our job’ as councillors to represent the community.

‘There’s seven councillors already here,’ Cr van Lieshout said.

Staff listed various achievements since the engagement strategy was adopted, including the establishment of a yoursaytweed.com.au website with six ‘independently facilitated online forums attracting more than 460 registered users, 11,500 visitors and more than 10,500 document downloads’.


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