I’m somewhat bemused by the candidates for the Lismore Council election. One ticket has 14 candidates, when there are only 10 councillors and a mayor on the Council, and not one of those candidates, to my knowledge, has any local government experience. Instead, the group are pushing their business experience and independence (which is somewhat dubious), and this raises a number of doubts in my mind. Local government is not a business, it’s regulated by the State government and its roles are more in line with the delivery of services to their communities. Furthermore, over the past years the power of the general manager has increased significantly, particularly in regard to ‘operational’ issues.
In just on 18 years ago on Lismore Council I was Mayor and deputy Mayor for two years, I represented Lismore on Rous County Council for eight years, the NSW Local Government Association for six years, and also carried out a variety of other representative roles. My motivation came from having spent 12 months with the Council assisting it to develop its first management plan. During this time, I attended every Council meeting and was involved weekly in meetings between the mayor and senior management.
This experience gave me great insights into local government and the qualities that effective councillors – and mayors – need. I saw firsthand how councillors who came on to the Council based on their business experience, or having specific ‘pet projects’ to pursue, soon discovered that those experiences are of limited value in a political environment where State government provides the legislative framework for many issues. The most effective make sure they understand the complex issues one has to address and listen to experts as well as the very diverse communities in our area. The mayor has to take forward and support the decisions of the Council, which can mean having to go against their own opinions. For example, as Mayor I had to argue (successfully) for funding for the flood levee, which was something I opposed.
I was troubled with some of the things I saw happening in recent years at the Council, but I’ve seen that change over the past 12 months. The new general manager has had extensive management and government experience and an impressive background working in countries in our region of the world. From what I hear, he has brought a new attitude to the Council. The departure of several councillors who, from a distance, seemed to take a confrontational rather than cooperative approach to their role, also seems to have changed the environment.
What many in the community don’t understand is the time that our local representatives commit to carrying out their role. It’s not just a question of turning up at meetings and voting. Apart from having to come to grips with the many complex reports in every business paper, which takes many hours, there are also numerous meetings, both at night and during the day, that councillors have to attend. They also have to respond to the very many emails, letters and phone calls from often very unhappy residents. Social media have placed an extra burden on councillors as well as sometimes the undeserved brutal nature of it.
Whilst finances are always stretched, and there will always be different opinions on what services should be provided and what are the right decisions for the Council, some of the sledging I’ve observed of particular councillors, including from those who are themselves our representatives, doesn’t reflect well on those doing the sledging. Representing a community is a difficult job that should be respected.
That said, being on Lismore Council is a real privilege, and if you’re wise and open-minded, you can learn so much about this wonderful place we all call home. I wish all the candidates the very best for the forthcoming election, but unless you’re prepared for the very many challenges that will confront new councillors, be very careful of what you wish for.