HOLIDAY IS OVER; THERE’S A SHIRE TO BE RUN

The gang was all there at Besgrove St, except for Cr Julie Morris, first constable, possibly in a divvy van somewhere stalking a villain. Veteran council watcher Barry Robinson was present, but he had forgotten his hearing trumpet and left early.

The first council meeting of 2018 was called to order.

Mayor Bryan Payne moved business briskly through the Acknowledgement of Traditional Land Owners, variously the Boon wurrung and Bunurong, and the Prayer, with its quaint King James Version entreaty to blessings from Above, that councillors be given “the strength and courage to make wise decisions with grace and dignity”.

What omnipotent power, Bandicoot wondered, would bestow on councillors strength and courage to make idiotic decisions in a state of drooling, eye-rolling buffoonery? Time for that prayer to be changed, he mused. The thees, thous and thys date back beyond 1604, to the reign of Good Queen Bess. Verily!

Segueing adroitly from the divine to the mundane, the evening got going in earnest with barking dogs – one in Hastings, where the problem had abated from “nuisance” to “annoying”, another in Mt Eliza, which is still being investigated but is clearly an annoyance.

Noise diaries ordered in both cases: they are necessary as evidence, to be kept by neighbours, not the dogs.

Other important matters dealt with early were the concerns of residents in First Ave, Rosebud, about the intemperate speeds being achieved in their street, requiring “calming” measures such as speed humps; the need for new signage on the borders of McCrae; and the necessity to preserve the rare and vulnerable plants in Rye’s Flinders St reserve.

Bandicoot uses the adjective “important” as fitting in the local government context of “foremost, supreme, predominant, paramount”. Canberra and Spring St are full of important folk but are remote from this shire, treating it with casual, amused contempt, a toy to be indulged and directed at whim, duchessed at election time, then bullied and intimidated, its rules ignored or rewritten at will.

Local government is the first level of government, not the third and lowest, a theme Bandicoot will come back to regularly. We have no eye-rolling Peter Duttons and Richard Wynnes here.

In Question Time, the rubbish collecting company Vin’s Bins got a powerful serve in a series of questions about noise and dust – possibly toxic dust, it was suggested – in Brasser Ave, Dromana, not far from Rainier Ave and other heavily settled suburban streets.

Chief operating officer Niall McDonagh took most of these half-dozen or so questions on notice, the answers to be posted on the shire website, as per the shire undertaking.

And mynas, the unwanted sub-continent avian immigrants to which the community would like Peter Dutton to turn his Constable Plod ingenuity. Councils such as the Cities of Casey and Bayside are extirpating these annoying, bullying birds at a fair pace, restoring nesting places and food to less aggressive indigenous species. Such solutions should appeal to Mr Dutton.

That’s 500 words up and Bandicoot is barely started before you, dear reader, are beginning to tire. So we will skip over the Report to the Community (it’s on www.mornpen.vic.gov.au) to the new valuation method imposed on the shire by the state government to aid its – not our – revenue requirements by revaluing properties annually to cream off land tax each year.

Financial controller Bulent Oz assured the meeting the change would be revenue-neutral for the shire but would add $200 million to the state’s land tax cash haul in 2019-20.

Most interesting item of the evening came in the “Addendum Agenda”, a form hitherto unknown to Bandicoot, whose meeting protocol knowledge has not previously ranged beyond the prosaic “Addendum” or two.

Since it contained only one item, Bandicoot argues it should have been styled the “Addendum Agendum”, the Latin word “Agenda” meaning “things to be done”.

“Agenda” is the plural of the Latin gerund agendum, generally understood to mean “a plan or list of matters to be acted upon”. In that sense it is treated as a singular noun; its plural is usually “agendas”. Bandicoot hopes the shire can revert to the occasional Addendum, or possibly “Addenda” if more than one is required.

But let us move on from such verbal trifles, to examine the shire’s hastily amended Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy (as detailed in the Addendum Agendum), a long-standing document never before made easily available to the hoi polloi.

The contents were a veritable rapid reaction response, almost military in its intent, by the appropriately named Anthea Hastie, Senior Policy Adviser, aimed at ameliorating the recent furore over shire CEO Carl Cowie’s acceptance of Portsea trucking magnate Lindsay Fox’s invitation for Mr and Mrs Cowie to join him and other Fox friends aboard a chartered yacht cruise from Athens to Venice.

Although the words “Lindsay Fox” and “Mediterranean cruise July 2016” remained unspoken during discussion in council, there appeared no doubt the revamped policy’s intention was to calm the furore generated by the Cowies’ Mediterranean sojourn.

And it came with a benefit to ratepayers and snoopy types, such as journalists and Bandicoots with mottoes such as “Lean and nosey like a Bandicoot” – the healing balm of openness and transparency.

The shire blasted this news over social media at first light after the 31 January meeting: “Mornington Peninsula Shire Council has made its gifts policy and registers available to the public to ensure the organisation meets public expectations around transparency and the disclosure of gifts,” it exulted.

What an unexpected bonanza! Pre-Mediterranean, such a thought as transparency about what gifts shire staff and councillors might accept was akin to apostasy, punishable by garrotting – or worse, refusal, denial and/or delay by the then shire Department of Uninformation.

Mayor Payne had told a local paper that the cruise “could look like a conflict of interest if it didn’t have council approval”. This followed Mr Cowie’s initial reaction when questioned by the paper that because the jaunt had cost the shire nothing “it was not required to be placed on the gift register”.

The shire media release also quoted Cr Payne saying generously that “…while the public availability of the [gift] registers is not required under the Local Government Act (1989) / Local Government (General) Regulations (2015), making the registers publicly available is in the interest of community, councillors and council staff.”

He went on in this vein: “Making the gifts policy and registers fully available to the public strengthens transparency, sees the Shire deliver over and above the requirements of the Local Government Act and Regulations, and is a positive response to changes in community expectations,” he said.

[Bandicoot is confident we will not see any substantial broadening of this policy, shire culture being what it is.]

Then, so no one was under any misapprehension about what marvellous thing was being done for the common citizenry, he added: “The gift registers were previously available through the statutory Freedom of Information process; however, accessing FoI places a cost on those seeking information” – as Bandicoot and other media know full well, resenting the shire’s predilection for a “we hide, you pay” policy of transparency.

Cr Payne concluded (for those who needed to know): “The cost of meeting a Freedom of Information request includes an application fee of $28.44 plus search charges, supervision charges, photocopying charges and reasonable costs for providing the information in a form other than photocopying.”

The mayor was ably backed up by CEO Cowie, who said that making the gift registers publicly available for nothing “improves transparency and accessibility for our community”.

The organisation will continue to seek and implement ways to be accountable to the community, exceed community expectations, and ensure good governance,” he continued.

There will also be a review of the Shire’s Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy and gift registers for Councillors and Council staff to ensure that any ambiguity is addressed in a clear and meaningful manner.”

The media release concluded by stating that the registers “are publicly available by contacting the Shire’s Governance team on: 1300 850 600 to arrange a suitable appointment for inspection.”

Last night’s meeting was assured by governance manager Joe Spiteri that the registers will be made available as-is, with no altering or redacting. They could make interesting – or extremely boring – reading.

Bandicoot is betting that Mr Cowie’s future entries in the gift register will be extremely punctiliously handled.

 [“Mediterranean” derives from the Latin “mediterraneus” – “midland;” the original sense being “sea in the middle of the earth”: from medius “middle” and terra “land, earth”.]