BY NEXT Saturday, we’ll know the nine people we’ve selected to represent us on the Bass Coast Shire Council for the next four years.
Good luck to all our new councillors. You’re going to need it, along with the wisdom of Solomon and the hide of a rhinoceros.
The returning councillors already know it full well. They have had a rough ride, bearing the brunt of a public dissatisfaction that may or may not be justified but that appears to be worldwide.
We, the people, are angry and dissatisfied and we want someone to blame. A councillor opened an email from someone she didn’t know. It started, “You disgust me …”
As a councillor, you will be abused, vilified, and harangued by some of the most boring, ignorant, one-track-minded people you have ever met, often while you are wandering the supermarket aisles dazed after a long hard day trying to combine your job and your council duties. My sympathies in advance for the flak you will cop for things you haven’t actually said or done, and the way complex issues will be misrepresented by those with a vested interest.
Bass MP Brian Paynter is staggered at the animosity that has been directed at councillors. “Never have I witnessed such vitriol directed at a group of people as towards our current group of councillors. They have copped it relentlessly from all sides. Have they made good decisions or bad decisions? I’ll let others be the judge of that and there are plenty prepared to offer an opinion.”
As for those councillors – almost all of you – who promised in your election campaigns to “represent the community”, good luck with that too. You can listen to them all, but when it comes time to vote on a difficult issue, which part of the community will you represent: the 47 per cent in favour or the 53 per cent against?
Will you represent those who speak the loudest or will you seek out the 99 per cent of people in your ward who would never think of ringing or emailing their local councillor or writing a letter to a newspaper? Will you represent those whose opinions go against your core beliefs?
There’s something to be said for each councillor having a set of “wise ones” that he or she can consult on difficult issues. Cr Phil Wright attempted something like this with his monthly community forums on Phillip Island. The difficulty is that those who attend are likely to think much as you do, which is reassuring but not very useful.
The real difficulty is in reaching those who don’t give a stuff, at least not until after a decision is made when many whinge about not having been consulted. Throughout the campaign, most new candidates have pointed to the council’s failure to consult. Yet with almost all of their big projects of the past four years – the rural land use strategy, the Phillip island tourism strategy, the Phillip Island cultural centre – there has been extensive and expensive attempts at consultation, often with little response.
Once you are on the council, you will find your constituents resent paying you. People complain that councillors are in it “just for the money”. If money was truly your motivation, you should have applied for a job at Coles. As a councillor, you will need to put in between 20 and 30 hours a week to attend council and committee meetings, background briefings and workshops, read long-winded reports, answer multiple emails and attend functions. For that you will receive an allowance of less than $25,000, or $480 a week, which works out at between $16 and $24 an hour.
But perhaps you stood for the council in the hopes of achieving a pet project. You will find the way ahead long and hard. You will need diplomacy to convince at least half your fellow councillors of the importance of your project, the skill to shepherd it through the bureaucratic process and the patience not to give up.
Looking on from the outside, it was plain that councillors were fools who kept making stupid decisions. Once you’re on the inside, you'll realise you may have been a little hasty. It will take you the first year to begin to understand the labyrinthine processes and arcane ritual of a council and what you can and can’t do.
You will have to master subjects – finance, planning – that are far outside your orbit. A former finance manager on our council estimated that about two people on each council tried to understand what he was saying. The eyes of the other five councillors would glaze over when numbers were discussed or finance reports presented. One-hundred-page planning reports and 200-page strategies written in a repetitive, formal, bureaucratic style will test your patience and understanding.
Those lazy over-paid paper-shufflers you want to get rid of? You will be amazed by the statutory burden on councils – the endless reporting and auditing – and how much it costs in time and money.
You will discover that, for all your complaints about “rising rates”, Bass Coast is one of Victoria’s lowest rating councils, well below the neighbouring shires of South Gippsland and Baw Baw.
And you will realise that the community you aim to represent wants conflicting things: better services; better infrastructure, including aquatic centres, arts centres and cultural centres; and - always - the lowest possible rates.
Sympathies to those of you who innocently responded to loaded candidate questionnaires from various interest groups, asking your views – and pledges – on things like aquatic centres, music policies, information centres and multiple tips. They all probably seemed like good ideas at the time but those pledges may come back to haunt you when you are required to make serious decisions about how to spend the community’s money.
MP Brian Paynter says the incoming councillors will face enormous challenges both in making change and living up to expectations.
“When elected they will realise that there are existing council contracts that need to be honoured and making change is not as simple as many think. I’m in favour of the new ward structure but it will certainly be interesting to see how the competing interests work together.
“What I do know is our community is screaming out for leadership and people that have the ability to make sound, logical and practical decisions.”
Leading into the election, many voters have been depressed by the negativity of the campaigns, particularly those waged by the two main pressure groups: the Phillip Island Progress Association (Stand Alone) and the Bass Coast Ratepayers and Residents Association. It’s easy enough to find what they oppose – closing tips, dog curfews on beaches, rate rises, overpaid paper shufflers, the CEO’s pay packet – but more difficult to find a vision for the future.
Given the support of the local media, candidates allied with the two groups will probably dominate the new council. But once they have re-opened tips on Phillip Island and Inverloch, let loose the dogs of Bass Coast onto the beaches, examined the CEO’s pay packet, what next?
I console myself with that thought that all of you, no matter how narrow your original interest, will grow in the job. The critics and the criticised will sit side by side and discover they have much in common. And, within your varying abilities and intelligences and energy levels, almost all of you will try to do your best for your community.
Thank you for taking on one of the most difficult and thankless roles in community life. We owe you.
October 25, 2016
As someone who has just completed a six month job interview for the position so elegantly detailed, I am compelled to complement the Bass Coast Post. However, that is akin to pinning a medal on Everest.
Since moving to Wattle Bank in 2011 I have been informed, entertained, often delighted and occasionally saddened by the articles within and the “by the people, for the people” nature of the enterprise. “We owe you” is certainly reciprocated.
B.t.c.o.d. is the most comprehensive and enjoyable risk assessment that I have read. It leaves very little unsaid.
In discussion of people standing for pet projects I often cite the ACT election of 1989. The No Self-Government Party fielded a number of candidates solely committed to ending the embryonic independence of the Territory. Three of their candidates were elected and they went on to play important roles in the governance of the Territory.
There are many issues that need urgent attention but engaging the silent majority and building on “what’s strong rather than what’s wrong” should be a long-term consideration, especially if the current level of conversation across the community continues.
Geoff Ellis, Wattle Bank
Independent Candidate for Western Port Ward
October 24, 2016
The same has applied to every Bass Coast election since 2005 and possibly earlier. I recall vividly the sustained attacks on the previous CEO 12 years ago and some of the most vicious and unfair attacks on individual Councillors in each Council since.
One small point. The first change to the by-laws to exclude leashed dogs from the beach was taken without explanation prior to the decision being made at the Council table. I can’t recall any one who fought against this decision saying they “wanted to unleash dogs unto the beach”.
Veronica Dowman, Bass Coast councillor, 2005-12
October 24, 2016
Thank you, Catherine for so eloquently expressing the truth.
In every case with which I approached the past council, I was listened to with respect, asked for evidence and detail and accommodated after presenting rational arguments. It was this past council that added an extra fortnightly session in order to consult with community more adequately. All who wished could come to those sessions to address the council and discuss their concerns.
I found, especially the Mayor, Jordan Crugnale, a hard-working, intelligent, dedicated person who worked 'beyond the call of duty' for the benefit of our community. Much gratitude to you Jordan.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the past council; the hard, effective work of councillors as well as the provisions of ongoing opportunities for consultation with the Bass Coast community.
Felicia Di Stefano, Glen Forbes
October 23, 2016
We thank you Catherine for your brilliant and insightful article regarding the forthcoming elections here in the Bass Coast Shire.
Your objectivity and understanding of all the political issues is refreshing in light of all the other political rhetoric and spin that has been floating around for the past few months.
It's probably hard for you to imagine what a great impact 'Bass Coast Post' has had in terms of unbiased reporting during the past few years. The fact that you then let readers decide what is truth and what is pure self interest, is worth its weight in gold.
The community congratulates you and applauds you for your courage, determination and being a brilliant journalist and member of the community.
Phyllis Papps, Rhyll
Thank you Catherine, for an insightful, reasoned, witty and gracious treatment of a vexed issue. We can only hope that this next group of councillors has the collective intelligence and perseverance to step through and around the unending array of land mines, leaving the Shire in better condition than it inherited - as I believe the departing council has done!
Maddy Harford, West Creek
Great insight Catherine, into the difficult job of being a Councillor and fairly representing the electorate.
Robin Dzedins, Lynbrook