◙ Freedom of Information documents spell it out. So why weren’t we just told the facts?
Avid readers of Bandicoot’s posts will recall councillors voting in May to “discontinue” the Peninsula Pet Expo, which the community had, by way of “overwhelming feedback”, agreed was “a valuable outlet in celebrating responsible pet ownership to [the peninsula’s] large community of pet owners”.
But that was a couple of years ago and it was pure shire spin. The refrain had changed by late 2016, according to shire documents released to Bandicoot under freedom of information.
Bandicoot had been intrigued by how such a brief and vague officer’s report had persuaded councillors to chuck out the expo. So he decided to go foraging. He smelt a rat, and not of the sort that youngsters took along to the expo.
The event had been attracting what a shire advert cheerily described as “an entourage” of “all creatures large and small, furry and feathery”, including miniature ponies, dogs, cats, pythons, copperheads, crocs, a peregrine falcon timed at 389 kmh and a barking owl, to name but a few.
So popular had it become that in 2011 it was moved to the Rosebud foreshore, where it continued “to establish a well organised, structured and safe event for all patrons and participants”. And it became, to quote one document, “biannual”, which means twice a year. Oops: the writer meant “biennial” – once every two years.
The FOI documents released to Bandicoot suggest the wheels started falling off from 2011. Sponsors were falling away and it was decided not to print programs following “a large amount of paper wastage” at previous expos. Further, there was mention in the 2011 Pet & Pony Expo meeting minutes of “reports of cruelty at previous events” that must be stopped.
As to sponsors, they “have been approached and being the year for contractors to tender for the Shire, those contractors cannot be approached for sponsorship”, the minutes stated, but adding an optimistic note – “approximately 50 exhibitors [would be] attending”.
Finally, the minutes stated that “publicity will be brought to the next meeting”, set down for Hastings on 23 August, 2011. The minutes of this meeting were, unaccountably, not part of the two-centimetre stack of documents released to Bandicoot under FOI.
Also unaccountably and annoyingly, half the documents released were not relevant to the FOI request lodged. They wasted everybody’s time, including that of shire officers.
But Bandicoot found in the stack a few documents of great interest. One, dated 9 December 2016, started to explain why the pet expo must be ditched.
Headed ‘Policy & Information Memo [PN182] Peninsula Pet Expo’, its purpose was “to provide councillors with an evaluation of the Peninsula Pet Expo and to make future recommendations for the event.
It was effectively the expo’s death warrant.
The memo stated that the move to the Rosebud foreshore was to “attract higher participation and attendance”, the new location being “more visible, central and accessible”. Further, the change to biennial “resulted in the event from going stagnant too soon for the reason that there is very little pet related entertainment, activities and industry stalls on the market” [sic].
Bandicoot’s trained sub-editorial eye suffered a frisson, a loss of focus, on reading this sentence. He had to sit with head between knees to recovering from a moment of dizziness.
The event, the memo went on, “has been surveyed over the past two times” – Bandicoot’s document trove included only one of these two surveys – “and there has been a noticeable drop in attendance with the RSL being a major competitor by hosting a Christmas Family Free Day”.
The memo did not say whether this clashed with the pet expo. No date was given, nor whether the family free day (free of families or free for families?) was to be an annual event. But clearly the expo was going bow-down into the briny – “In 2015, there were less than 2000 attendees which represented a decline of some 40% from previous years,” the memo lamented.
How many fewer, and from what number, did 40% represent. It could have been as low as 1200. The shire either did not have an accurate figure to give Bandicoot – perhaps only a guesstimate was made – or could not find it.
The expo was clearly failing, was the message in the subtext – “We gave it our best shot and it’s dying under us. How do we put it down humanely?”
Well, telling ratepayers the stark truth was an option! We can handle the truth; in fact, we would welcome it.
The memo continues, stating that the expo costs the shire an (unsubstantiated) $80,000 to run, up some 100% from 2011. Then it reports dolefully that the Rosebud Chamber of Commerce is white-anting the shire with “A new event initiative, the Rosebud Rock Fest”, which it proposes to run annually “on the same day as the expo” – the last Sunday in November.
After this news the author grasps a couple of straws as the coups des grâce. Two other events duplicate the expo – the venerable Red Hill Show (run each March, not November) and a dog expo, date not provided, which arguably could be folded into the pet expo. Lastly, Frankston runs a similar event annually (time of year unspecified), “which may detract from [the shire event]”.
Councillors, and the public, were informed vaguely that “similar pet exhibitions [were] held in neighbouring municipalities”. That’s rather a large stretch from a single event in just one neighbouring municipality.
Before Bandicoot moves on, he presents the following 82-word sentence from the memo. Schoolteachers may wish to use it as an educational tool. Bandicoot uses italics to signal errors … but leaves you, patient reader, to choose where to divide this monster, provided to you verbatim, into two sentences:
“The event has been run for more than a decade and components of the event has been changed to avoid duplication however there is very limited activities/stalls within the animal industry which therefore leaves the event and benchmark what new boutique and type events could be held that haven’t been held before on the peninsula, such as focusing on sustainability, events of significance and/or tourism events that showcases what the peninsula has to offer, similar to a weekend food and wine trail.”
This memo thus set the scene on 9 December last year for ditching the expo, which occurred six months later, on 23 May. After the axeing, a councillor briefing was held on 15 August.
The ‘Councillor Briefing Note 653’, gets straight down to business. Its purpose: to deal with the shire’s obligation to adopt a Domestic Animal Management Plan 2017–2021 and “provide an update on the opening of the new Community Animal Shelter and proposed expenditure of the $90,000 funding recently allocated for domestic animal management programs”.
What a happy coincidence that the pet expo was killed off just when the shire needed money for the Domestic Animal Management Plan!
The briefing note informs councillors that “Priority project funding of $40,000 has been allocated to the development of the DAM Plan. A resource plan for ongoing strategies and programs will be proposed during the development of the 2017-2012 DAM Plan.
“Council has also allocated $90,000 of Pet Expo funding towards Responsible Pet Ownership programs. The allocation of this funding is [of course] separate from the DAM plan process.”
Oh! Bandicoot nearly forgot to tell you! The DAM plan includes seven “priorities and strategies” for domestic animal management, including “investigating the feasibility of mandatory de-sexing of dogs”.
Don’t tell Fido!
Bandicoot has to admit the rat he smelt the night councillors axed the pet expo had not quite the mud-flat aroma of his old mate Rattus fuscipes, the Australian bush rat. The FOI documents were redolent of rattus rattus, the ship rat, carrier of the plague and infester of domestic roofs and pantries. The recommendation to “discontinue” the pet expo had rattus rattus pawprints all over it. It was unnecessarily devious, opaque, and plain silly.
It appears almost certain to Bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus obesulus) that the decision to axe the expo had been made late in 2016. Clearly there was a case for doing so. The money was to be used for worthy and logical purposes.
The cat lobby was onside, favouring opening the animal shelter on Saturday mornings so people could adopt a pet at a time that suited families. (Bandicoot believes only one cat has been made available for adoption in recent weeks.) No other lobby group looms large in this matter.
So … why the bureaucratic dodging and weaving, the not-so-cunning subterfuge now revealed through FoI? Why the un-communication? Why not have simply recommended what was agreed behind closed doors – that “Council resolves to discontinue the Peninsula Pet Expo and reallocate its funding to the Domestic Animal Management Plan, plus a new program to enhance community awareness of pet ownership and related activities”.
Most people can handle the truth and expect to hear it. We deserve the openness and transparency the shire brandishes like a banner, not tiresome nonsense like that indulged in throughout this episode.