By KIERAN FINNANE
In another bland meeting of the Town Council the issue that last night attracted the most debate was the supply of “No Junk Mail” stickers to residents, in an effort to reduce paper waste going to the landfill.
Council’s more important business – things like the compulsory acquisition of Anzac Oval and CARGO projects including the “Alice Hub” proposal for the Alice Plaza – continues to be dealt with behind closed doors.
Both of these developments were the subject of special meetings, confidential of course, in December. The public has been permitted to know only the subject matter – not even broad background information nor an outline of present and future direction, nor any indication of council’s rationale for doing what it is doing.
Councillor Eli Melky last night asked for clarification of what’s in confidential and what’s out on these two topics, in order to respond to media queries. (Ostensibly this was a question about council’s minutes.)
CEO Robert Jennings suggested councillors should contact officers who would offer them guidance.
It’s hard to imagine that the guidance will go beyond the published minutes of these meetings, where the only substantive information – other than who attended and what time they started and finished – comes in the form of resolution.
On the Alice Hub, it reads:
That Council has resolved:
A. That Council has been invited and has accepted to participate in a non-binding proposal with a Consortium to explore business related opportunities associated with Alice Plaza.
B. That Council endorse this exploration as a part of Council’s commitment to Centra Australia Regional Group of Organisations (CARGO).
And on the acquisition of Anzac Oval:
That Council has resolved:
1. Council continues to object with regards to the Land Acquisition of Anzac Oval and to follow the process under the Land Acquisition Act.
2. Council request mediation as per the Land Acquisition Act.
With regard to the Alice Hub, the “commercial in confidence” mantra, referred to by Mr Jennings, is hard to counter – except that the consortium itself has made a detailed media release on the subject, including its dealings with council!
On Anzac Oval – which is a community-owned asset and the subject of considerable community concern over the last few years – the secrecy is even more difficult to justify.
To questions from the Alice Springs News this morning, Cr Melky (pictured, from our archive) says he “100% agrees” that the secrecy around the Anzac Oval dealings is excessive but he is bound by it. He could confirm though that no new decisions have been taken, meaning that council is still in a legal battle with the NT Government: “We’re not backing down,” he said.
He had more slightly more latitude to speak about the Alice Hub this morning, as a decision was made in the confidential meeting last night to bring out a limited aspect.
The original proposal – by the consortium of owners and project manager Colliers International – included the possibility of council taking up a tenancy at the Alice Plaza for a new public library, whose infrastructure would be developed by the consortium.
In Cr Melky’s view that made sense for council and would have been good for the town.
He was in the minority, though, of the five Elected Members who made the final decision. The vote was taken at the 7am meeting on 1 February, from which four Elected members, including Cr Marli Banks, were absent.
“This was a carryover from the previous week’s cut short meeting. It went from a full house* to five members making the decision,” he said.
“It was an unfair date, on the first day of school, to expect parents to be also available at 7am.”
The majority voted not to support the library component of the Hub. Cr Melky is not free to say more – the report from officers that covers the issues remains confidential – other than that council continues to participate in discussions with the Hub consortium.
Another push from Cr Melky came during General Business, the part of the meeting that allows councillors to raise issues that are not on the agenda. He had two.
The first was council’s media policy. He asked to receive a report about how council has responded to changes in the media “which is not operating the same way that it was 15 years ago”.
It was clear that he was addressing, at least in part, the council’s enduring boycott of the Alice Springs News as an advertising medium.
Editor Erwin Chlanda put the boycott on the record last October after years of fruitless deputations to officers and finally to Elected Members themselves.
Mr Chlanda put his case again to Cr Melky late last year and followed up in recent weeks.
In the chamber Cr Melky asked how many organisations are acknowledged as media by council – those who regularly attend council meetings (Alice Springs News, ABC and NT News) and others – and how much support council gives to “local media”.
Does council’s media policy need review, he asked, especially following the recent change with the Centralian Advocate ceasing its printed edition (and significantly shrinking its operation).
He asked for a breakdown of advertising spending – how it is spent and whether it is effective or not.
As public money is involved, it was appropriate that it be discussed in the open council meeting, he said.
It concerned him “greatly” that the money is spent in small increments but by the end of the year it is a “massive spend”.
He didn’t say so, but in Council’s current Municipal Plan the total allocation for “media relations operational” in 2020-21 is $306,913. This is up considerably on the 2019-20 amount, $259,432, as well as on the projected amount for 2020-21 ($268,512).
How does this spend fit within council’s overall spending policy? Cr Melky asked. (Council requires that for expenditure in excess of $5000 comparative quotes be sought, with tenders required for expenditure in excess of $100,000.)
“I would like to know we are not falling into monopoly traps,” he said. Rather he wants to see competition in the market, leaving council in a position to negotiate.
Thus it’s important to support local businesses, and he wanted to know how council is treating the smaller outlets.
Mayor Damien Ryan interrupted: he wanted to check with the CEO that “we are not drifting across a line here”, not “delving into operational”.
Mr Jennings responded that the media budget is approved each year “with your [Elected Members’] authority”, and that as long as he and officers are following policy and remain within budget, they can approve expenditure.
Cr Melky had mentioned some “strategic items”, said Mr Jennings, without specifying what they were, and he would be happy present some information on them.
Cr Marli Banks (pictured, from our archive) supported Cr Melky’s request as “fair and reasonable”. It’s “important the way we advertise” and she too wanted to know why some media are included in council advertising and others not.
“We should be looking to support local procurement when we can,” she said, adding that a review is timely given the change to local print media.
“We should be ensuring that we as Elected Members give some direction to this … that we overarch the policy and that then directs the business of council.”
Cr Jimmy Cocking said that council should look at, in addition to print and online media, how it engages with community and commercial radio as well.
A straw poll indicated majority support for the CEO to provide the information requested.
Cr Melky wasn’t quite finished, although the Mayor pointed out the time: it was not yet 7pm, which suggests significant business was once again pending in the confidential section of the meeting.
The perfect segue for Cr Melky’s point: it is time to review the restructure of council meetings.
Councillors had agreed to trial it, opinions have formed and now it’s time for officers to come back with their analysis and for a debate to be had.
The CEO said he would look up the timeframe in the resolution that approved the changes.
Council papers show that resolution was moved last August by Cr Jacinta Price, seconded by Cr Glen Auricht. When a division was called they were joined by then Mayor Jamie de Brenni (this was during the period when four of the nine councillors, including Mr Ryan, had resigned to contest the NT Government election).
Against the change were Crs Cocking and Melky.
The resolution stipulated that the restructure start at the end of September “with two improvement reviews in six month intervals as a result of consultation between Council and senior officers.”
That means the first review falls due at the end of March.
*Deputy Mayor Jacinta Price was absent from the January 28 Ordinary Meeting so it was not quite a full house. She was present last night.
Photo at top: Cr Glen Auricht attended last night’s meeting by Zoom. His sole verbal contribution was to advise that “we read all our junk mail”, for which he got a good laugh.