Council turns deaf ear to community concerns
By Ben Bell
IN AN age where the range of communication tools available to people is seemingly endless, I am continually surprised that one of the main issues community members raise with me during any conversation is their frustration at not having a voice on things that may affect their life in Toodyay.Read more
Until recently, my initial response was to walk them through various communication options such as email, phone calls and written submissions to Toodyay Shire Council.
Then it dawned on me.
It is not that residents are struggling to get their thoughts, questions and comments to the appropriate decision makers in the council or administration.
Rather, it was that these community members felt they were not being listened to.
The more I speak to people, the more prevalent this complaint appears to be.
Most people have resigned themselves to the fact that their opinions aren’t being treated with the level of consideration they deserve.
Consequently, many appear to have stopped engaging with the council, saying “why ask, if council is not going to listen?”
When I delve deeper into this with them, they cite examples such as last year’s rate increase and numerous planning documents that were subsequently adopted by council.
As many of you may already know, prior to imposing last year’s rate increase, the council via the CEO sought public comment on its proposed 2.2 per cent rate rise.
The Toodyay community response was overwhelming with 2000 rate payers telling the council to take a one-year pause in any rate rises because they had just endured a decade of what many considered to be excessive rises that far exceeded inflation.
So, having asked the question and received the community’s response, what did the council do?
It ignored the community’s feedback and increased rates regardless.
But it wasn’t the rate hike itself that appears to have disillusioned some community members.
It was the use of the word “I” by many councillors when justifying their support for raising rates.
Comments by some councillors along the lines of “I have looked at the budget and I believe a rate rise is necessary” were taken by many residents to indicate that the personal position or opinion formed by an individual councillor cancelled out the opinion of 2000 Toodyay ratepayers.
A similar situation occurred during the public consultation period for the shire’s long-term financial plan when numerous voices, including community members with a strong background in accounting and finance, expressed concern that the current 10-year plan puts the shire on the verge of bankruptcy within the next four years.
The shire, of course, has a (very unattractive) silver bullet to fix this problem in the form of imposing massive rate hikes on Toodyay residents in coming years.
But the question remains – why weren’t community members’ insights, thoughts and opinions given more weight during public consultation, especially given that they all appeared to agree that the current plan puts the shire in a very precarious financial position in future years?
There is a temptation for councillors to argue that they were voted onto council by the community to make decisions on behalf of the community.
That is only half true.
Our number one role as councillors – as stated by law – is to be your voice on the council.
That role is to express your thoughts, opinions, objections etc. on every single matter that comes before the council.
Council chambers are probably one of the only places where the word “I” should never be used.
After all, no councillor should vote on a matter based on their own personal opinions, beliefs or prejudices but should make decisions according what you and others in the community want.
I mention this because the council is about to start workshopping Toodyay’s 2019-20 shire budget, and I would like to strongly encourage you to help guide your council throughout this process to ensure that the end result reflects your expectations and aspirations for Toodyay’s future direction.
Ideally, I would like to see a draft of the proposed 2019-20 shire budget provided to the broader community for comment very early in the piece to ensure that we, as a council, are on the right track.
Perhaps even a dedicated Facebook page or similar where the community and administration can openly discuss various elements of the proposed budget would help ensure that your comments and feedback are considered during the process.
I am not proposing anything revolutionary – just that the shire and council find a way to start a two-way conversation on matters of importance to you instead of relying on a monthly shire newsletter to push what is often incorrect or incomplete information, and a locked shire Facebook page that prevents community engagement.
At the end of the day, you as a member of the Toodyay community need to know that your voice is being heard and that your ideas are being listened to.
The upcoming shire budget process provides an ideal opportunity for this to occur.
After all it’s your money the shire is spending and you should be entitled to get a big say in how it is being spent, yes?