Eurobodalla Labor for Council is committed to building a strong partnership with the community it serves. We are proposing these practical ways that Eurobodalla Shire Council, can encourage more open government and stronger community involvement.
The first set of suggestions revolve around how residents can be encouraged to take an active interest in the Council meetings themselves. The second set are more to do with building active involvement in communities themselves
Council meetings and business
Livestreaming public forums
Council previously livestreamed the public forum segments of Council meetings, but this was discontinued. There has been public pressure for this livestreaming to be reintroduced.
Everyone will benefit if the Public Forums at both briefings and Council meetings are livestreamed and archived. Councillors and senior staff will have the benefit of hearing a range of views from residents interested in the matters before the Council; Residents will be able to take an active role in Council matters, and those who cannot be physically present at Council meetings can at least hear and see the views of their fellow residents on Council issues.
One of the reasons for cancelling the forum livestreaming was concern about privacy, defamation and other legal issues relating to live broadcasts. These have been managed by other nearby Councils and Eurobodalla could put in place similar safeguards to cover these issues so that livestreaming can be re-introduced.
Easily accessible Council papers
At present the Council agenda papers are released on Wednesday afternoon, with a deadline for community comment of noon Monday, providing only three days for presentations to be researched and prepared. Eurobodalla Labor will propose a “ten page- ten day” rule for Council papers. This is a common practice for cabinet papers in the Australian Public Service. Agenda items will have a limit of 10 pages, and they will need to be publicly available 10 days before a Council meeting so that both Councillors and the wider community have the opportunity to properly research and make comments on agenda items. There will be times when there is urgent business to be discussed. The mayor will have the discretion to allow these items to be discussed at the Council meeting.
Open council briefings
At present the councillor briefings held the week before a council meeting are not open to the public or to the press. We strongly support open government, and unless there is good reason, these briefings will also be open to the community and to the media.
Mobile Council meetings
Eurobodalla Shire stretches 100 Kilometres from Sth Durras to Akolele, which can make it difficult for residents to attend Council meetings. One solution to this is to have some Council meetings away from the Council chambers.
These meetings could be designed so that they mainly address local issues, perhaps with community input to the items to be considered on the Agenda.
The logistics of having a Council meeting outside the chambers will need to be considered, but it would be surprising if it were not possible for the Council to meet apart from the chambers in Moruya.
On a related issue, daytime meetings of the Council make it difficult for interested working residents to attend Council meetings. As the Council is serving its community, evening meetings also need to be arranged so that all residents do have an opportunity to contribute to Council decisions.
Local Press is a vital element of a thriving democracy. Council needs to do all it can to encourage the press to take an interest in the activities of the Council so that we have a well informed and active community.
Local press includes both traditional paper as well as well as electronic press. Social media is also becoming an important source of information for many, so it is important for the Council to engage with all these media outlets.
Council meetings are the focus where decisions are made, and it would make sense for a press briefing/conference to be part of the activities on meeting days. Ideally these meetings would be open to the public, with press representatives having the opportunity to question the Mayor and the General Manager on the issues being considered by the Council meeting.
Section 355 of the Local Government Act allows for the Council to form committees to carry out its business. These committees can be established to assist the Council in its activities. There does not appear to be any reason why committees of residents could not be set up to provide advice to councillors on the matters they are considering.
Eurobodalla Council had such a structure in the early 1990’s where community services reports to Council were first considered by a community committee, chaired by a Councillor. The recommendations of the committee were then presented to the full Council for their deliberation and decision. This arrangement provided a powerful voice to residents interested in the services provided by the Council, and a valuable source of information to the Council about residents’ views on these services.
Annual Review of Community Strategic Plan
Section 402 of the Local Government Act requires Council to prepare a Community Strategic Plan (the Plan) covering a period of at least 10 years. The plan must be reviewed by an incoming Council by 30 June following the election.
The plan must follow social Justice principles and cover topics detailed in the Act.
The review of the Plan provides the Council with the opportunity to build robust community engagement in building this plan.
A ten year focus allows for good forward planning, but there also needs to be shorter term plans to ensure that progress is made on the longer term projects. There also needs to be a regular review of the plan, to ensure that it still meets the needs of the community, and that it is progressing in the way Council and the community wishes it to go. Annual reviews of the plan allow for this oversight to be carried out. The annual review can also provide an opportunity for further community involvement in monitoring the plan.
Active Community Involvement
Supporting local community associations
Local community associations can provide valuable information to the Council on local issues which may not be obvious at a Shire wide focus. Community Associations provide local residents with the opportunity to take an active interest in their community. This will be enhanced if the Community Associations are seen to have an influence at the Council.
Council and Councillors could work with progress associations, by:
- making a commitment for Councillors and senior staff to regularly attend association meetings;
- assisting community associations to apply for small grants to assist their community
- arranging occasional meetings between senior council staff, Councillors, and all community associations.
Employing a Community Engagement Officer
There is value in engaging a staff member with skills in community organising, who can be a bridge between the council and local community organisations. This officer could also assist communities to form community associations, where there is local support for this. The officer could also work with Council staff to develop their skills in effectively working with community residents.
Taking complaints seriously
The council already has a complaints policy. We will review the policy to ensure that it meets the best practice standards for handling complaints. Part of this review will be to ensure that complaints are handled in a way that while respecting confidentiality of all involved, is as open to scrutiny as possible.