Bernie O'Neil - 2 February 2021

Bernie O'Neil presented to Council as the Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla, at the Public Access Session on 2 February 2021.

A Better Eurobodalla (ABE) presentation to the Eurobodalla Shire Council
Public Access session on Tuesday 2 February 2021

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to address Council.

I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. ABE expects that before governments, at any level, make decisions that will impact their communities, they will undertake broad and meaningful consultation, listen to and share expert advice, and proceed using a transparent decision-making process so that the community understands who makes decisions, when and why.

While A Better Eurobodalla has presented to Council before on specific issues, I welcome this chance to more formally introduce A Better Eurobodalla to Council, Council staff and residents of Eurobodalla. A Better Eurobodalla was formed in September 2019 around shared values and principles that we believe are vital for effective local, state and federal government. These principles are:

Integrity and honesty
Transparency of process
Open communication
Inclusiveness, and

In applying these principles in Eurobodalla we’re looking for:

Open, accountable and responsive local, state and federal government
A shire council with a sustainable, practical vision that can cost-effectively meet the needs of residents and ratepayers
Local government that actively and accurately represents Eurobodalla residents’ interests to state and federal government and 
Candidates for the 2021 local government election who genuinely listen; who tackle key issues of concern and urgency and who safeguard the interests of all of us.

Over summer ABE has been distributing flyers across Eurobodalla to inform non-resident ratepayers of their eligibility to vote in the September 2021 council election. Distributing this information at markets across the shire has given us a great opportunity to listen to residents and ratepayers about what is important to them. Interestingly, most non-resident ratepayers were unaware of their right to one vote per property and the requirement to register with council to exercise that right.

ABE has also recently started meeting with prospective candidates for the September 2021 council election. We invite all prospective candidates to meet with us so we can explain what ABE is doing in the lead up to the election and what our community engagement is telling us about what is important to the people of Eurobodalla. We will report on all these meetings in our newsletter and on the website.

We have also been writing to Eurobodalla Shire Council on a number of issues and have received replies. I thank Dr Dale and Council staff for that. Consistent with our principles of openness and transparency, ABE is publishing all sent and received correspondence on our website. ABE will continue to write to Council and follow up and report on issues as they emerge. ABE’s approach is to look at Council’s policies and strategies and critique them in relation to their implementation and share that work with the community.

A consistent message we have been getting from community members concerns consultation by Council. I commend Council on its Community Engagement Framework and Participation Plan adopted by Council on 26 November 2019. This Plan embodies great principles to guide Council’s approach to engaging the community. They are to:

Be open and inclusive
Generate mutual trust and respect, and be accountable
Engage early and provide information that is clear
Be considerate and provide feedback, and
Value and acknowledge skills and resources.

Importantly the Plan tells us that ‘Ineffective or tokenistic community engagement can be detrimental to the good faith of the community in the long term’. (P4)

Additionally, in providing direction to staff, the Plan speaks convincingly about engagement levels and methods describing five levels of participation as:
Collaborate, and

Under the heading ‘Consult: What will we say’ and ‘What will we do’ the direction is: ‘We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.’

And under the heading ‘Involve’ the Plan states: “We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how’

This approach is laudable and I recommend all interested community members to familiarise themselves with the commitments that Council has made in the Plan.

Now we need Council to live up to these commitments. Unfortunately, recent examples have shown that the consultation practice is not always consistent with this Plan and its principles. Some examples:

1) The Batemans Bay Community Centre: Council’s recent decision to lease out the Batemans Bay Community Centre failed to conform to the approach recommended in its own Community Engagement Plan outlined above. Council did not effectively

involve the multitude of community groups affected by this decision, which was also at odds with Council’s previous advice to these groups that the existing Community Centre would continue to be available until the new Mackay Park Centre was completed and operating.

2) The Mogo Adventure Trails Project: Council was in the midst of undertaking community consultation when a $3 million funding grant was publicly announced for this project. This unfortunate sequencing indicated that the project was already a ‘fait accompli”, with little prospect of meaningful input by the community. The appropriate sequencing would be for a project proposal reflecting substantial community input to be developed, which is then submitted for funding.

3) The Batemans Bay Regional Aquatic Arts & Leisure Centre: when planning of this project began, community expectations were that it would include both a 50-metre pool and a 500-seat theatre. As these expectations have not been met, there is considerable community disquiet and concern about the functionality of the centre, particularly in light of the Centre’s significant upfront and recurrent financial costs.

As well as being important for effective and responsive project management, community consultation is also a vital component of good governance in the institutional and political context. So, it is disappointing that Council has removed live streaming of the Public Forum element of its fortnightly meetings. Streaming of the Public Forum provides a valuable opportunity for community members to communicate directly with Councillors and the broader community.

Council should be proactively facilitating additional opportunities to hear about important issues direct from the community. For example, our neighbouring Bega Valley Council has run a series of face to face “Councillors in the Community” sessions over the last 4 years, involving Councillors going out in the community to hear concerns and issues directly from citizens. The meetings are held in evenings, so as not to exclude people with day-time responsibilities. If Eurobodalla Council is serious about public consultation, ABE asks that it consider undertaking a similar process at, for example, Central Tilba, Nelligen, Tuross Head, Bodalla, South Durras and Narooma?

To conclude, ABE considers effective community engagement to be a key element of delivering good governance, where a ‘tick the box” approach is not desirable or effective. Community consultation is an area where Council needs to “walk its own talk”.

Thank you

Bernie O’Neil