Eurobodalla Citizens Jury – $100,000, 86 recommendations. Worthwhile?

Is Council spending your money on the right things? If not, what should it change?

That was the question put to the Eurobodalla Citizens Jury, a group of 28 randomly selected residents.

Starting in June 2016, the Citizens Jury reported back to Council in December making a wide range of recommendations from business development to land use to the role of the arts in the community, including:

  • Ensure that the potential for a performing arts base is considered in the redevelopment of the MacKay Park precinct.
  • Investigate revenue opportunities through use of waste facilities to generate income and or energy source, e.g. incorporating methane collection; recycling of plastics into a viable resource.
  • Continue and further develop collaboration with Aboriginal people and use of traditional land care techniques.
  •  Council recognise that the Jury supports the consistent application of the LEP and other environmental strategies and plans, such that green belts and riparian zones are protected.

The Citizens Jury project cost around $100 000 but was it worth it?

Yes, but it was not without its problems, according to Moruya juror Kate Raymond.

“The Citizens Jury was definitely worthwhile, it gave us all a good sense of what Council did and what kind of decisions had to be made every day,” Kate says.

However, the Jury struggled with the complexity of the task and was heavily reliant on Council staff to provide them with information.

“We came to realise that the question was just too broad, and we really couldn’t answer it,” Kate explains.

“How are we supposed to know if Council is spending enough money on roads, rates, and rubbish? What do we have to measure it against?

“We were briefed, but we only got Council’s perspective, and they said, ‘We’re doing the best we can with the money we have’. We had to take their word for it,” Kate says.

The Jury members also struggled to achieve consensus on issues.

“Even if some of us thought Council was spending too much on something, we’d never be able to reach consensus on it because it’s a group of 28 people with different priorities,” Kate says.

“For instance, some people wanted much more paving and guttering in the Shire but others disagreed because they thought it was less important for a rural shire. That’s just one example!”

It’s a point Deputy Mayor Anthony Mayne isn’t surprised to hear.

“By definition, a jury is a group of people who consider information and then reach a binding decision about it,” Cr Mayne says.

“Although the Jury deeply engaged with the issues presented to them, they weren’t expected to come to a unanimous agreement about them.

“To call it a ‘Jury’ does little to advance or promote the positive benefits of this project,” he says

Kate Raymond also believes the jury struggled to understand the role of Council.

“There were some jurors with quite extreme views about what Council does [views that] were simply outside what we were meant to be talking about,” she says

“I think the New Democracy Foundation (the Jury facilitators) did a really good job though.”

“Overall, I still think it was worthwhile,” Kate says.

Critic of the Citizens Jury project, Paul Bradstreet, took a keen interest in the process and observed a couple of Jury meetings.

Paul represents the Eurobodalla Ratepayers Association (ERA).

Not a juror himself, he argues that the Jury wasn’t able to consider new ideas for the Shire.

“The Shire needs new ideas, but Council remains stuck in the same old patterns because it’s easier than dealing with new things,” he says.

According to Paul, citizens with innovative ideas were directed to make a submission to the Jury, but the Jury couldn’t consider them.

“For instance, the Eurobodalla Ratepayers Association had ideas that we wanted to put to Council, especially following the [Council] elections in September,” Paul says.

“The ERA had a couple of councilors elected on our platform issues, so we know our ideas are relevant, but we weren’t being given a chance to express them.

“The Citizens Jury was set up as a public relations, rubber stamping exercise, where Council gets to hear that they’re doing a great job,”  Paul says.

Eurobodalla Shire Council says that new ideas and submissions from the public were included in the Jury project.

A Council spokesperson says, there were 39 submissions from the community, and the Jury considered all of them carefully.

“Although the Jury project was primarily set up to look at how Council currently spends its money, it did consider new ideas, for instance, a community ‘think tank’ activity to run as part of Local Government Week and investigating a mobile library service,” the spokesperson explains.

Kate Raymond agrees that the Jury considered new ideas, but was somewhat ambivalent about Council’s response,

“For instance, our report recommended (p.9) having an agricultural officer in Council, to supercharge the outcomes from the Rural Lands Strategy,” Kate says.

Council’s response was, ‘We will look into this’ and if there is grant funding available (p.32) they’ve told us they will investigate options.

“Does this mean Council is actively looking for grant funding for this position? What does investigating options mean? That’s unclear,” Kate says.

Council’s spokesperson says the Citizens Jury worked well and achieved the goal of providing feedback on how Council spends its money.

The jury made 86 recommendations, 76 of which align with the Draft Delivery Program 2017-21 and the Operational Plan 2017-18. These two documents inform upcoming Council spending in the immediate future,” the spokesperson says.

“We [Council] also realised that there’s quite a lot of confusion in the community about the three tiers of government (local, state and federal) and their respective roles. So we’re working at getting some information about this out there.”

Eurobodalla Deputy Mayor, Anthony Mayne. Source: Facebook
Eurobodalla Deputy Mayor, Anthony Mayne. Source: Facebook

The Deputy Mayor believes it was a worthwhile process.

“In the modern world of social media, to see 28 people deeply engaged and enquiring of any number of issues over a sustained period of time is to be applauded,” Cr Mayne says.

“These were volunteers, paid a small allowance to give up seven nights and many hours of reading over several months to listen, wonder, seek, exchange, explore and debate a variety of matters before finally presenting their outcomes to the Councillors”.

So, will the Eurobodalla see another Citizens Jury?

“Council has developed a Community Engagement Framework and the Citizens Jury will remain something we can use when appropriate,” Council’s spokesperson explains.

“The jurors provided significant amounts of their own time and Council is appreciative of that.”

Words by Fiona Whitelaw, Moruya

*Fiona contacted a number of other jurors for this article but Kate Raymond was the only one to take up the opportunity.

*Featured videos produced by Eurobodalla Shire Council before and during the Jury process.

The power of a simple homemade meal By Leah Milston

Leah Milston @ Mystery Bay By David Wallace
Leah Milston @ Mystery Bay By David Wallace

Years ago when my children were small and I was very depressed, a friend arrived on my doorstep with a homemade meal.

I had gone from an energetic high to a motionless low.

I always managed to look after my children but everything took so much effort and time.

My friend was concerned about me, she had a sense I wasn’t well in the way friends know. She had no idea of or experience with what I was going through but thought a home cooked meal would be useful.

She was so right.

The fact she offered no advice and was honest about not knowing what I was going through, was such a relief from the well-meaning but ill-informed advice that I had been receiving from other people.

She made me feel so cared for – and what a relief to know that I could feed my family that night without worrying about what I was going to cook.

It’s a gesture that touched me and one I have tried to pass on; seeing someone in need and trying to think of something practical to do for them.

It can be just sitting with a person, folding laundry, bringing in firewood, taking children to school, feeding a pet, or going to the shops.

We don’t need to understand fully what someone is going through in order to help them.

When someone is ill it can be hard to know what sort of assistance is needed and even hard for the person who is unwell to know. So if you want to help – start with the simple stuff.

For me, when I was sick I felt I was so isolated, so alone, like no one understood.

When I received that home cooked meal all of a sudden I was not forgotten or alone, I was given strength to get through another day, a day closer to wellness.

During Mental Health Month there is much emphasis on what the individual can do to maintain their own mental health.

The importance of diet, plenty of exercise, being connected to the community, positive ways of thinking, coping with a stressful life by using meditation, mindfulness, cognitive behaviour therapy – all are seen as important parts to promoting mental health.

I am adding something new, an idea from author and philosopher Shannon L Alder:

“When the “I” is replaced by “We” illness becomes wellness.”

We all have the potential to make such a difference in someone’s life, and all it can take is a small gesture like a delivered homemade meal…or writing an article and sharing your experience.

Don’t be afraid to be the ‘we’ Shannon Alder talks about.

 

About Leah…

Leah Milston was diagnosed as being Bipolar over 40 years ago.

She says she spent the first 16 years living in denial, the next 16 she describes as ‘reluctant’ but for the last 9 years Leah has embraced the way she is wired.

So much so Leah is now a voluntary speaker for Beyondblue and was previously a voluntary rural ambassador for Black Dog Institute (2007-2010) and regularly writes articles and speaks on radio about mental health issues.

She is also a representative on the Eurobodalla Health Services Community Representative Committee.

Since 2005  Leah has been the owner, manager and personality behind Milston’s Past and Present in Mogo. The shop has enough order and enough chaos and quirkiness (just like it’s owner) to make it a  wonderful place to browse.

NSW Local Government Elections – there has gotta be a better way

People casting a vote
People casting a vote

The results of the poll have been declared, the new Eurobodalla and Bega Valley Shire Councils are getting down to work, however some voters are perhaps still wondering who are these people?

Leading up to Polling Day on September 10, locals had to contend with a field of candidates that would have filled a few of buses.

Fifty-five candidates stood in the Eurobodalla, 26 in the Bega Valley; contesting nine spots on both councils.

Many voters expressed frustration leading up to the poll around the lack of information about each candidate. People had a real sense that they were voting blind and resented a feeling of being forced to vote without the necessary information.

Moruya’s Keith Dance has served two terms on Eurobodalla Shire Council and lays claim to having contested every council election between 2000 and 2010.

He says he has been arguing against the way councilors are elected for many years.

“My argument has always been – we have eight vacancies (plus the Mayor), we should have eight primary votes,” Mr Dance says.

“As a voter, we should be able to elect our council, not elect one member of a group and hope that their preference trail will go where we want it to go to fill the other seven spots.”

An advocate for below the line (number every box) and first past the post voting, Mr Dance is of the view that many candidates simply contested the election to direct preferences to a lead candidate.

“I makes it hard for people to decipher, to work out what the candidate’s credentials are, or even to know whether these people are fair dinkum,” Mr Dance says.

Eurobodalla Shire Council HQ @ Moruya
Eurobodalla Shire Council HQ @ Moruya

Rather than simply placing a ‘one’ above the line next to a candidate’s name, Mr Dance wants voters to be able to vote for each position on council directly.

‘Above the line’ voting plays out at Eurobodalla Shire elections more so than in the Bega Valley, where the makeup of candidates tends not to lend itself to that extra voting option. Having said that though, preference flows did influence the size of the field south of the Shire boundary at Dignams Creek, so the argument put by Mr Dance is relevant for both Shires.

“We should have eight primary votes,” Mr Dance suggests.

“That would shrink the field down because you would only have people who were fair dinkum about being elected.”

He believes there are at least two people elected to Eurobodalla Council on September 10 that had no desire or ambition to sit in the council chamber. Mr Dance claims these candidates found themselves higher up the preference flow order than was originally intended and hence elected on the back of a strong lead candidate.

“Now they have to try and work out whether they can fulfill the commitment of an elected councilor,” Mr Dance says.

“I used to spend three or four days a week (on council business) so the commitment to be a councilor is fairly high.”

Keith Dance from the About Regional podcast:

Coincidently Victoria is heading into Local Government Elections next month and part of the process unfolding south of the border has merit and would increase voter engagement and confidence according to Mr Dance.

This longtime council watcher believes the postal voting method many Victorian councils adopt would be a win for disillusioned voters in NSW.

“Voting information is sent to the elector and they return it as a postal vote,” Mr Dance says.

“You do not have to run the gauntlet of going into the polling booth with umpteen people in front of you shoving paper in your face saying ‘vote for me, vote for me’ it frustrates the hell out of people.”

Mr Dance says the Victorian system includes candidate profiles as part of the voting information sent out to people on the electoral roll, reducing confusion while increasing confidence in the process.

“We had nearly 12% informal voting, a 12% vote is enough to get one candidate elected, it’s wrong, it just doesn’t work,” Mr Dance says.

Bega Valley election material
Bega Valley election material

A spokesperson for Local Government NSW (LGNSW), which represents the interests of the Local Government sector in NSW, says postal voting does not have widespread support.

“Postal voting could disenfranchise a significant proportion of the voting population, particularly young people and those with less permanent addresses,” the spokesperson says.

Mr Dance disagrees and says, “It allows people to have a proper vote.”

“It needs pushing and now is the time to do it, after the election, people have had enough of this,” he says.

A spokesperson for the NSW Electorial Commission says NSW Local Government Elections are administered according to the legislation.

“Responsibility rests with the Premier and the Minister for Local Government, reforms are therefore a matter for the government of the day,” the spokesperson says.

Any organisation or member of the public can make a submission on the conduct of elections to the NSW Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

“I raised this issue at a public meeting in Moruya,” Mr Dance says.

“There would have been 70 people in the room and I damn near got a standing ovation.”

Disclaimer: Author is part time media officer for Bega Valley Shire Council