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.
“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.”
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.