Byron Shire Council have outsourced themselves because apparently we don’t trust them!
With the admission by council that they have a public trust deficit in their decision-making, councillors voted last week to pay consultants to help improve their image.
It’s the obvious gonzo political response, given no-one in the council appears to be able to hold a mirror to themselves and accept that they made the mess in the first place.
A citizens jury will be established, which will be a panel of randomly selected 28 anonymous locals who will decide on how to spend the rate-rise money on infrastructure projects. What could possibly go wrong?
Rather than just doing the job they are paid to do, councillors will outsource their powers to unknowns who won’t be held accountable.
Consultants New Democracy claim they have had success in regaining public trust with their model, something the mayor was keen to impress on the chamber at last Thursday’s meeting.
‘…We’ve heard loudly and clearly that our community does not trust us and that you think the feedback you’ve given in the past has been ignored or simply not acted on.’ – Council press release
It’s like a real court jury, where random citizens are selected to decide major court cases. Yet these unknown locals will meet after 5.30pm and on weekends to come up with council expenditure plans.
But time is limited: they will have only a few weeks to come up to speed on major budgetary implications and become adept in the dark arts of manipulation, hypnotism and Jedi mind skills that will no doubt be inflicted upon them by council staff. Could it work? Perhaps; anything is worth a go at this point.
It’s like giving a toddler a surgeons knife, or asking a child of four where the broom-broom cars should go.
So, as someone who has sat in council meetings and reported on local government for more than eight years, here’s my take on why there is a lack of trust and how councillors and staff can address it.
Equity is a cornerstone of government – it helps society to function because it instills a belief that the law applies evenly to every individual.
Of course it never has and this is all an illusion. But to maintain that illusion, attempts must be made to present to the public the idea of equity.
Equity has been sidelined for expediency in many cases by both councillors and staff in the last year, which has led to an erosion in public trust.
No amount of money spent on consultants or giving up their powers to a random mob of bored retirees will change that.
It’s been more than a year in office now, and the councillors in charge appear to be making the same mistakes their predecessors made; they are ignoring equity and instead blaming their problems on what they say are a small minority of vocal critics.
Or as the mayor keeps saying, there is a lot of ‘myth making’ about. Fake News! Sad.
Importantly, councillors have not focused on completing forward planning strategies, which help to underpin their legal arsenal in which they can defend against inappropriate development. The residential strategy is yet to be completed, for example.
Instead, mayor Simon Richardson and his supporters have ‘picked winners’ for developments, such as the Brunswick Eco Village and The Farm in Ewingsdale.
Further, the longstanding and clearly articulated opposition by informed community members to the activities of the government-run NSW North Coast Holiday Parks Trust in Brunswick Heads is another example of how public trust has been eroded.
The Greens majority have acted as personal lobbyists to this dubious corporation instead of backing the community.
It’s well known there is a split within the Greens; the previous ‘dark uncompromising’ Greens were ignored/ostracised entirely when the newer ‘urine-light-yellow Green’ mob took over.
It’s predictable the younger generation would want to make their mark with governance, but to cut off historical knowledge is not just idiotic, but is clearly dividing the community.
It’s not easy being light Green
There are no policies from the Greens available on the many issues that face the community, despite repeated requests. And it appears that the Greens councillors are not bound by any party policy that requires a steering committee around elected officials. Such a policy exists at the state level.
Overall, the mayor appears chaotic and unfocused – he seems easily led by simplistic and ill-defined catchphrases like ‘affordable housing’, ‘best practice’ and ‘sustainability’.
He is also often at odds with his state government counterpart, Tamara Smith, MP.
GM exits building
Here are just a few observations of previous general manager Ken Gainger, who recently retired for health reasons.
Early in his term he moved quickly to restructure what was a dreadful over-stacking of poor-performing top-level managers.
He also helped the council get back into the black after threats from the state government over the fit- for-the-future requirements.
Yet personal interference with major projects and a lack of discipline from senior staff to manage rogue employees led largely to a chaotic and untrustworthy environment.
The sale of the Ocean Shores Roundhouse site early on was a debacle, just for starters,
Conflating a Byron Bay bus terminal proposal with the masterplan (intentionally or not), without public consultation, was a major public-relations mistake. No neighbours were consulted on this proposal. Without a development application (DA), there are no public submissions and procedural fairness is lost.
The decision by the general manager to pursue Butler Street residents in the courts, after those residents lost defending their street from becoming a bypass, looked petty and vexatious. Councillors also seemed to not understand that it was happening.
The poorly managed and ultimately ineffective bypass that is the swan song of former Nationals MP Don Page would make a great episode of ABC TV’s Utopia.
Moving on, those who use the Byron Sports Rec ground complained that staff ignored their input about how to manage the space, and subsequently the council had to withdraw the last masterplan and present another.
Efforts to alleviate market stallholder concern on Butler Street Reserve have been largely unsuccessful and controversial because it all appears to be on the fly.
While the general manager apologised for cutting down trees in Railway Park last November, there were no consequences. Mere mortals would cop a fine, but not here.
Only an inefficient bureaucracy would ask the staff member who chopped down trees without warning to write a report about it. Thankfully in this case, councillors rejected that report.
And let’s all remind ourselves: the actions of staff and councillors are no different from ‘normally’ functioning government institutions. This is just a region that takes a very keen interest in governance. It’s an almost unbearable amount of scrutiny to be under, but we, the unwashed masses, are the better for it.
In summary: if staff were kept in line by a stricter GM, and the GM didn’t interfere with politics, the council would be held in higher regard by the community.
And if the mayor and councillors focused more on where the wheels are coming off, the community would be better served.
There, heaps of money in consultant fees was just avoided. You’re welcome.