Lei Parker - 4 February 2020
Lei Parker addressed the Council regarding the Eurobodalla bushfires at the Public Access Session on 4 February 2020.
I registered to speak at this Public Access session some time ago, suggesting that I would speak about “Bushfire issues in General”. Since then I have wondered what I might say to you. Some days I penned in my mind my anger, my disappointment, my disgust … while other days I thought “Why bother. There is no point at all as they will neither listen nor care”.
Councillors, I know that behind closed doors I am ill thought of; to the point where some among you voice disgust of both myself and The Beagle newspaper that I own and edit. You are entitled to your personal opinions, as I am of mine. But today I don’t address you as individuals but as Councillors, elected to undertake the duties of the office of councillor in the best interests of the people of the Eurobodalla and faithfully and impartially carry out the functions, powers, authorities and discretions vested in you to the best of your ability and judgment.
As we now approach the September 2020 election your community will be asking which among you are worthy of re-electing. The recent bushfires have seen the entire community of the Eurobodalla affected. During the 71 days to date the community have been looking for leadership, direction, assurity, security and support. Your community sees Council as a faceless body that legislates, acts and provides. They do not care who is sitting in this chamber. They have the expectation that their COUNCIL will serve them. Most of your community don’t even know your names. Your names are not relevant to them. What is relevant is the team that is Council. All in this chamber, acting as one, acting for them. They expect that.
During these recent events your community (and two among you) expected that there be an Extraordinary meeting to discuss Extraordinary issues and put in place Extraordinary actions for these Extraordinary times. Is it the case that on three occasions this request for a meeting was refused by the majority of you in this room.
Some of the Extraordinary issues at hand were in regards to the immediate revision of Council’s preparedness for the next event. This would cover all matter of things such as council fleet, communications, protective zones for power to essential infrastructure and to ensure supplies of diesel for generators were at hand for water supply and sewerage systems to function. Revision would also enabled discussion of the adequacy of the Evacuation Centres under council’s control and set in place actions to ensure compliance and improve capacity. The revision might also advise on the extent of essential infrastructure lost such as timber bridges on rural roads.
It might well seek the opinion of Councillors to request support from the State Government to waive or subsidise rates for those homes and business premises lost in the fires. An immediate meeting might have seen the Disaster Fund being established immediately rather than two weeks after the first event. Council still offers no information to those who might donate as to what the criteria might be for distribution of any donation. AGL provided $100,000 and had to wait for the fund to be established.
What has become clear is the lack of preparedness on the part of Eurobodalla Council for emergencies such as these. Your Emergency Disaster Plan on your website was years out of date as is your Bushfire Management Plan. But there was no revision …. and then January 23 arrived.
By comparison with you neighbouring Bega Valley Shire Council your actions as a Council in engaging with your community have been abysmal. That Council (and their councillors) returned to work on January 2. Since then they have held three Council meetings to discuss, review and action. They immediately initiated their Disaster Fund to secure donations and established the criteria for distribution of those monies to those in need (irrespective of being directly fire impacted) that has been in place now for three weeks. That Council has engaged with its community, it has openly and transparently engaged with its Business Chambers and it has informed and included its community from Day 1. In addition to doing this it has also communicated the essential information provided to it by its Emergency Services.
While the quality and timeliness of communication from the Eurobodalla Emergency Operations Centre has been commendable the absence of leadership from Eurobodalla Council, broadcast across the Shire to all residents, was a sore talking point.
The Eurobodalla community, your community, do not care what you as individuals did during these past events. They don’t care if you made sandwiches, cleaned up in Evac Centres, offered some emotive support. As Councillors that isn’t your job. There were hundreds of volunteers and government trained personnel who ably and willingly did that.
No, your role as Councillors was to be THE COUNCIL. To meet, discuss, review and implement with the powers that are vested in you and as expected by your community. And then convey it to ALL of your residents.
Any review, if conducted, will find that you, the Eurobodalla Shire Council, were ill prepared. COUNCIL will be found to have failed to anticipate the extent of an emergency, that your disaster plan and bushfire plans were out of date and that when given the opportunity in August 2019 to recognise the probability of a Climate Emergency as we have just witnessed, you failed to recognise the enormity of what was to impact us just four months later.
As a Council you have failed your community and any review will establish your shortfalls. Much like the review undertaken in 1994 that saw the Botanical Gardens reduced to ash. This time the extent is nearly all of the Eurobodalla Shire. However as a community we have shone. It was the community that brought us through. This includes the many council workers who returned from holidays to ensure water and sewer functioned, along with those who undertook clearing and road repair.
The community looked for leadership and fortunately found it in the local member, Andrew Constance. His proactive social media presence, like that of Mayor Kristy McBain in Bega delivered the assurities to the community that somebody was in charge other than the RFS. The RFS were incredible however their role was to fight fires. The community needed a genuine leader and in Andrew Constance they found one.
Your role Councillors, was to be The COUNCIL. To be seen to be seen. To revise and to action those things that Council is in charge of. It is understood that you all attended an hour and a half briefing by staff last Tuesday that offered little if any question time. You may have been briefed however you were only told what the staff wanted to tell you. There is much they did not.
I encourage you to go out into your community and hear first hand from those who you are meant to represent. Ask them if they thought Council had prepared Its Fire Plan in terms of hazard reduction of reserves under its control as well as pre-emptive preparation of facilities capable of being used as Evacuation Centres and meeting State Guidelines.
Your community have measured the Eurobodalla Council and have found it to be wanting.
I opened with a sentiment that I thought this presentation would fall upon deaf ears. There is little doubt that most of you have little respect or regard for me or the opinions I hold. In most cases that is reciprocated.
Today I address COUNCIL. The governing body that comprises you all, executive, staff and councillors, under Legislation, Policies and Codes that you are required to represent.
One of those among you wrote to me two weeks ago after I had provided Councillors with first hand anecdotes of evacuees at Council’s evacuation centres saying “Go away, we are doing the best we can”.
Well Councillor, my response to you is that COUNCIL’S best was simply not good enough.