Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Country council meetings canned

The public gallery at the community forum and council meeting
 held at Bushy Park last October. Two councillors were absent.
A NEW schedule of Derwent Valley Council meetings has been published following the decision to cease the longstanding practice of meeting in country areas three times each year.  The council will now meet only at New Norfolk, with a roster of community consultations to replace the formal visits to Granton, Molesworth, Lachlan, Bushy Park, Westerway and Maydena.

The decision goes against the policy of some other councils with large land areas to cover. Central Highlands Council alternates its meetings between Hamilton and Bothwell, while Southern Midlands Council varies its venues between Colebrook, Tunbridge, Tunnack, Bagdad, Kempton and Oatlands.

The council's new meeting roster.
The move was initiated by Councillor Luke Browning at the November council meeting, when he called for a report investigating the potential for all future council meetings to be held in the New Norfolk Courthouse. He said he felt no-one was gaining much from the current practice and he wanted to see the country meetings replaced with "listening posts and other communications strategies addressing specific topics for that regional area."

Deputy mayor Jessica Cosgrove agreed, saying: "When I have gone out to the regions with our council group I have noticed that we would be lucky to get at least one question at times from members of that region and it just seems to me like a bit of a waste of time that we could be using in a more productive way."

The report requested by Cr Browning was received at the December council meeting. The author, acting corporate and community services manager Amanda McCall, recommended replacing the country council meetings with regional community forums.

Councillor Luke Browning.
Councillors unanimously supported the recommendation, on the proviso that the regional forums be added to the Derwent Valley Council Strategic Communications Plan and be adopted at the January meeting.

"I want to make sure that there is something in play that's better than what there is already, before we take it away, I don't want to take something and give them a work in progress," Cr Browning said at the December meeting. "I want to make sure, and that we also outline what exactly a community forum is, what we're going to do with it, what its agenda is, what we hope to achieve out of it and I believe that detail needs to be added down. And then also, who should attend, like I believe it should be treated like a meeting with importance and that all councillors should turn up and any relevant council officers should be as well."

Cr Browning said the regional community forums, to be held three times per year, could also be training opportunities. Guest speakers could be invited and he hoped the initiative would result in better communication between the council and the community. "So I really want it to work. I believe in it. It might be slow to get going initially, but I believe attendance will grow," he said.

The public gallery at the community forum and council meeting
held at Lachlan in 2019. Two councillors were absent. 
No community consultation was undertaken by the council in relation to the change, and Ms McCall said the meeting schedule would be advertised to advise residents once it had been adopted.

Last month's council meeting received and adopted the updated communications plan, ending more than 20 years of council meetings being held outside of New Norfolk several times each year.

Instead, regional community forums will be held at Westerway this month, Granton in May and Molesworth in September. Cr Browning said the proposal from communications officer Daniel Cheetham was a good start and had his full support.

Cr Paul Belcher was not so impressed. "It's not a start, it's an absolute balls-up [compared] to what we actually did have in place," Cr Belcher said, referring back to public attendance at weekly workshops before that opportunity was withdrawn by councillors, and participation at monthly forums prior to council meetings until those were abolished. He said the new structure of listening posts and regional forums would disadvantage New Norfolk residents because if they could not attend the scheduled "listening posts" on Australia Day and at the Derwent Valley Autumn Festival, they were not permitted to speak at the regional forums held outside the town.

Members of the public at a council meeting held at Granton
in 2018.
Cr Julie Triffett said New Norfolk people were not missing out, as they had the opportunity to attend the council itself, and the workshops referred to by Cr Belcher had been poorly attended. She said the new strategy was a good use of councillors' time.

Cr Cosgrove also agreed that it was a good start. "As I've expressed in previous meetings, I was getting quite frustrated by the lack of interest in our forums before our meetings, and I believe this is a good opportunity to move forward and I believe that a greater amount of members of our public will actually take this opportunity," she said, adding that the new structure could be reviewed if necessary.

The motion was carried with the support of mayor Shaw, deputy mayor Cosgrove and Crs Triffett and Browning. Cr Belcher opposed the motion and Crs Martyn Evans and Frank Pearce were absent.

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