As a member of the South Gippsland Shire Council’s 2014/15 Rates Strategy Steering Committee, convened to advise council on a rates strategy prior to the 2015/16 annual budget, I was deeply disturbed by council’s majority decision to amend the strategy developed through the committee process, reportedly in response to one particular ratepayer’s grievance.
The amendment was sought, and succeeded in getting the numbers, after the draft strategy had been approved by council for exhibition, and a final strategy approved, adopted and reaffirmed.
In other words, for those of us had who voluntarily given up large swathes of time to drive to Leongatha, attend meetings, and do our not inconsiderable homework between meetings, the strategy adopted as council policy was, at the time of the amendment in question, a done deal.
The Rates Strategy Steering Committee comprised seven members of the public, chosen from those who had put themselves forward and representative of the various major interest groups of ratepayers.
In their committee discussions and recommendations, the community participants were able to put sectional and personal interests in perspective and make final decisions that were ultimately – within the limits of our designated role – in the interests of the community as a whole.
There were also three councillors on the committee.
I was there on behalf of the Foster Community Association.
Our job as members was not to discuss or question the amount determined by council to be raised from rates in 2015/16, but to devise a strategy that would make the rating system generally fair across the rateable groups and also accountable.
Not an easy role, but an opportunity, nevertheless, for community input into a defensible basis for determining rates, greater transparency of process, and insight into some of the complexities, including the flow-on effects of rates discounts for particular groups. By the time our committee had completed its tasks I was pleased to have been part of the process because it seemed we had achieved something useful, and, judging by the response of council to our draft strategy and its subsequent finalisation and adoption, I felt our efforts had been worthwhile and respected, and that we had not been merely token participants in a token process.
The recent events at council have caused me to reconsider whether we weren’t after all a token group and our significant voluntary efforts simply a waste of our time.
I note and appreciate the attempts by councillors Fawcett, Davies, Brunt and Hutchinson-Brooks (as reported in The Mirror of July 1) to try, in the name of good governance, to halt the passage of the motion to amend the strategy, after it had been approved and adopted by council and because of the arguably spurious basis for the amendment.
Unfortunately, and astoundingly, these councillors were in a minority.
The passing of Cr McEwan’s motion results in an amendment to the Rates Strategy based not on logic, as was the Rates Strategy Steering Committee’s demarcation line around farm size, but apparently on the size of one aggrieved party’s own property.
I wonder how council will get South Gippsland community members to participate in future important advisory forums when a group of councillors can impose questionable decisions that flout their own document (the Rates Strategy) and their peers’ attempts to ensure accountability and due process, disregarding legal advice (paid for by those same ratepayers whose rates are apparently at the whim of a few councillors).
It is hard not to feel cynical about participation in community consultative processes.
Lynn Atkinson, Foster.