VERDICT ON COUNCILLORS: A FEW MUST IMPROVE

In AFL terms we’re at quarter time in the shire councillors’ four-year term of office. It has been a fluctuating year; headwinds, squalls, some floundering through muddy patches and one or two ill-considered out of bounds on the full.

In the normal contest, which can be councillors versus staff (as outgoing councillor Tim Rodgers warned the newly elected), the staff, particularly planners, came out strongly at the first bounce, ambushing the newbies with several proposals containing factual errors and/or omissions.

Those erroneous briefings totally wrong-footed new councillors. And, as far as Bandicoot is aware, planners still have not briefed them on green wedge rules – after a year, a quarter of their term!

At least on the subject of planning, particularly in green wedge applications, both staff and councillors improved close to the quarter-time siren. Once or twice-bitten, councillors properly rejected a couple of important planning recommendations from staff, with more likely to get the same treatment shortly.

It is not easy to stroll into a council chamber and be instantly at ease, especially when facing occasional staff decisions that are unclear, faulty or blatantly incorrect, and in the face of apparently experienced councillors making a hash of things or staying silent when they shouldn’t. Or vice-versa.

Of the five brand-new councillors elected a year ago (three “old” council hands stood successfully for re-election; Frank Martin and David Gill each did a Nellie Melba; and Bryan Payne had served multiple terms as a council CEO), a few have shown promise over the 12 months. But overall, their performance has been patchy.

Some harbour – and vigorously campaigned on – ill-considered notions of how local government should or should not be spending ratepayers’ money. Some of their positions were argued at the level of a hazy pub dispute – that is, not argued at all.

The most prominent in this zany ideological checklist is that councillors should be refused shire funds to travel overseas to conferences and seminars in pursuit of shire interests, a position held by the newly elected mayor and his deputy, among others.

This illogical position deprives the community of proper research on cost-saving measures in areas such as reducing the shire’s carbon footprint, when it is shire policy to become carbon-neutral. (At present we have at least one councillor advocating retaining the Rye tip, even though it emits half the shire’s greenhouse pollution.)

Question: if an impending overseas conference would help the peninsula tap the local hot underground aquifer to, say, heat the proposed southern peninsula aquatic centre at virtually no cost in perpetuity, would the ideologues oppose councillor attendance?

They do not criticise shire officers attending such events, because they haven’t thought of trying to prevent the CEO from sending shire staff members. Bandicoot will take them seriously in this policy when they move to stop the CEO from “wasting” shire funds on such trips.

Another question: what is the ideologues’ stance on a trip inside Australia that would cost more than a trip to, say, a New Zealand hot aquifer conference?

If councillors were seeking to take overseas trips for, say, a sister city junket, Bandicoot would heartily endorse such pointless waste. Wisely, the shire has no sister city relationships. But it has close links with Timor Leste that, perhaps, some will oppose if – as has occurred – a visit there, or a sponsored visit here by Timor Leste officials, were suggested.

Councillors who hold such ideological positions appear ignorant of the huge changes that have taken place in the past decade at local government level – which is becoming the first government level, not the third, behind federal and state governments. It certainly interfaces daily with citizens in ways that “upper” level politicians would recoil from.

How can local government wait on federal and state pollies for leadership on such issues as climate change? The fed Libs are brawling over it. How can the shire make local planning policy when state planning supremo Richard Wynne can stride into the china shop in his size 13s and, it seems, on a whim kick the entire state into submission on state-wide three-storey residences?

Such upper-politico whims include the continuous brazen cost-shifting of responsibilities from federal and state governments to local government, mainly because these two levels can do it, usually because they want to free up “their” money to spend to their political advantage.

But back to the chamber: some councillors appear unable make decisions for the community free of personal factors beyond ideology, apparently unable to cast aside distaste, even strong dislike, for colleagues in making decisions about matters vital for the Mornington Peninsula community.

Or perhaps they find it easier and safer to say “no” when they do not fully comprehend arguments being put to them.

That must change. So must puerile manoeuvring in and out of council to achieve hollow short-term victories.

Certain staff advice has not helped councillors over the course of the year. It is confusing for them to get advice that can change erratically, from meeting to meeting.

This correspondent has been council-watching on the peninsula for a decade or more, and for several decades over the longer term, on and off the peninsula. That’s a lot of councillors watched, a lot of changes witnessed, both locally and beyond, such as the highly questionable Kennett amalgamations and ancillary business practices forced on councils in the 1990s.

We have gone from Town Clerks to Chief Executive Officers with pay packets fatter than those of state leaders, some getting within cooee of the $527,852 prime minister Malcolm Turnbull takes home annually.

Verdict for this first year of four: many councillors can do better. And they have to do better, to represent their ratepayers properly. Tim Rodgers, running a busy cabinet making business, used to budget 30 hours a week for council matters. Not a bad starting point for the current lot.

In this context it is frustrating and aggravating to, for example, see councillors who appear not to have read their papers properly seemingly reluctant to participate in debates. This probably comes from not yet overcoming the shock some councillors got at the size of the workload, especially the reading burden, which a councillor must accept.

They undertook the task, knowingly or unknowingly, when they stood for election. They either, as the coach would say in the quarter-time huddle, lift their games or give the game away.