Can a bigger better building fix library woes?

15
972

By GABRIEL CURTIN and ACE GODDARD

What can the Alice Springs Public Library do to better meet the community’s needs and what facilities need to be expanded?

These were the two main focus questions for people attending the Town Council’s community feedback session, held last Wednesday, March 17.

Some 25 people turned up to the event, including ourselves, both of us past employees of the library.

The meeting heard first from Adelaide based architect Peter Moecke, who previously worked on the Mount Gambier library redevelopment.

Serving a similar-sized population, that project, he suggested, had a lot in common with the Alice Springs one. The redevelopment in Mount Gambier had increased library patronage fourfold.

Mr Moecke was joined by council’s Community Development Manager Jeanette Shepherd, Infrastructure Manager Stephen Baloban, and Project Administration Officer Kaitlyn Weekes.

Questions were quickly raised by members of the public about which groups are being consulted about the library redevelopment.

The response was vague, with Ms Shepherd and Mr Moecke citing “library staff, a general group, elected members, and a public forum” for the March 17 consultation and “heritage and arts, youth, Indigenous, and a trauma informed meeting” for a consultation on March 18.

There was also mention of a newly developed Library Committee, made up of elected members, none of whom were named at the public forum. On further research the Library Committee appears to be Mayor Damien Ryan, Deputy Mayor Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, and Councillors Jamie De Brenni and Eli Melky.

Sylvia Neale, a senior Arrernte woman and former library employee, as well as being its first Indigenous Services Officer, asked which Indigenous people had been invited to the consultation meeting.

Neither Mr Moecke nor anyone representing council were able to provide any names of individuals or organisations that had been contacted for the consultation. Ms Neale also asked why she hadn’t been informed of the proposed expansion or been invited to participate in the consultation, given her relationship to the library. 

Other attendees at the meeting suggested council’s research practices were “unethical”, pointing out that prior surveys about the future of the library expansion had fewer than 500 respondents, were conducted in English, did not allow the participant more than 50 words of written feedback and were mostly limited to internet forms.

There have been multiple kinds of community feedback and consultative processes implemented by the Town Council over the past three years. These include the recent survey from December 2020, a Library Customer Service survey in August 2019, a Ranger security survey, Roger Henshaw’s “Library Service Review and Strategic Development Report” from December 2019, Braydon Kanjira’s “Cultural Sensitivity Assessment: Alice Springs Collection, Image Collection, general library space and services” from September 2018, in addition to the Library Strategic Plan 2020-2024.

Given the number of previous surveys and consultations that have had no tangible outcome, as well as the allegations that the council implemented discriminatory policy and mistreated staff in 2020, concerns were raised about the council’s intention to expand the library before they had adequately attended to those issues.

In 2020, 11 of the 17 staff that signed a letter voicing their opposition to what they believed to be a discriminatory policy were forced out of employment at the organisation.

The library manager, the programs manager, the youth engagement officer, and a library officer were all removed on the same day with no prior warning, and, to our knowledge, no complaints of misconduct and no performance management reviews.

Remaining staff were instructed not to discuss the suspension of their colleagues and were not officially informed of the suspensions until over a week after the removals.

Participants in the public forum were asked to look at a graph showing which additional facilities were most popular with the survey respondents in 2020. These included facilities such as self-contained study pods, a combined library and cultural centre, a book vending machine and a café.

One community member suggested a café is at odds with current library policy which excludes people from entering with food or drink.

As alternative forms of social infrastructure in Alice Springs are sorely lacking, members of the community frequently seek shelter from extreme weather in the library. Removing people from a library who are seeking a comfortable and engaging space to eat food, study and commune, while also proposing a café which services only patrons with expendable income, betrays which members of the community council is prioritising in its vision for the library’s future.

Amidst the criticisms, participants were keen to acknowledge the good work the library and its staff continually do. One participant requested a third question be added to Mr Moecke’s list: what works well?

But, overwhelmingly, the conversation centred around whether an infrastructural expansion, however desperately needed, is enough to solve the current failings of Alice Springs Town Council’s management of the library.

The Alice Springs News is inviting the Town Council to respond.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Seems to me that the problems at the Town Council that should take priority are transparency and accountability to ratepayers.
    I read in disbelief:
    11 of the 17 staff opposing a discriminatory policy were forced out of employment.
    The library manager, the programs manager, youth engagement officer, and a library officer were all removed on the same day with no prior warning, and, to our knowledge, no complaints of misconduct and no performance management reviews.
    Remaining staff were instructed not to discuss the suspension and were not officially informed of them for over a week.
    This demands an investigation but so do many other actions and lack of actions by the council.
    No less than a full independent review is needed.
    Will our elected members stand up and demand one?

  2. “The Library Committee appears to be Mayor Damien Ryan, Deputy Mayor Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, and Councillors Jamie De Brenni and Eli Melky.”
    Why does this committee not include Marli Banks, who has been the most prominent advocate for the library including for the need for updated infrastructure for some time now?
    Or Jimmy Cocking, who is often at the library with his kid?
    I worked at the library for one and a half years and I never once saw any of the councillors in this committee in there other than to attend the odd council ceremony.
    It’s very concerning that these people with no demonstrated interest in or understanding of our library are the ones who can decide its future.

  3. Very well spotted, Hannah. Unfortunately, for some on council, it is all about power and holding onto control.
    The best example of this is how the Mayor and his cohorts voted for years against allowing the Aboriginal Flag to be flown on Anzac Hill, right up to the evening when they were finally out-voted.
    Alice Springs needs and deserves a council that puts the long-term interests of our town above political point-scoring between a CLP leaning Mayor and the NT’s Labor government. This petty politicking is holding our town back.
    We have a chance to put this right at the next election. Let’s not waste it.

  4. The Town Council borrowed $5m to redevelop the civic centre building whose cost was $10.4m.
    Of course, ratepayers copped an additional rate cost burden to pay for it.
    The library should have been at the centre of this redevelopment but was left out of it.
    Now we have a spacious building for Council and a cramped library for ratepayers.
    A lack of space contributes to noise issues at the library.
    Had the library been redeveloped would unaccompanied youth ever have become a major issue?
    Probably not!
    We may have seen less youth crime in our town if library access had been maintained.
    Library staff would not have been forced out and had their lives turned upside down.
    Looking at the enormous civic centre it is hard to believe that internal renovations could not be made to provide more space for the library.
    But of course this will not be considered.

  5. 11 of 17 staff … were “forced out” of employment? In another article it is noted they were CASUAL staff. Referring to recent amendments to the Act, to ensure it is clear for all casuals – there is no guarantee of ongoing employment. As a casual hospitality worker I was also “forced out” of employment at this time, but like most other casuals (likely including these ones) it was because there was no work. I didn’t like it either – but, as a casual your tenure of employment literally ends at the end of the shift you are working. We like it when the flexibility to work just enough to still maximise our “government benefits” – and it suits our lifestyle, but there is the risk of no guarantee of employment. Forced out – hardly – Susan and Co. – a little more truth in reporting is probably in order.

  6. Alexis: in the next line, the article notes that among those forced out of employment were “The library manager, the programs manager, the youth engagement officer, and a library officer”. These don’t sound like casual positions to me! It also says that remaining staff were directed not to talk about it.

  7. Alexis – i understand the hardline conditions of casual labour but the point here was the youth program was disbanded with zero notice. After keeping us employed throughout the closure period it was the library reopening and the sudden cut of youth services which forced us out of work. Technically legal but I have never been so disrespected by an employer in twenty years of work in Central Australia.

  8. @ Alexis Michelle; The management position at the library has always been permanent, not casual.
    The manager was suspended pending investigation and then resigned.
    She left town, after a proud history of tireless work for the community.
    Many of us knew her and appreciated her passion for libraries that have a role in supporting and educating youth.
    The Council powers that be did not agree with her or her staff.
    Our representatives on Council did not speak out and their silence condemns them.

  9. Hi Alexis Michelle,
    While some of those 11 staff members were casual I can assure you that the general manager, the programs manager, the youth engagement officer and the library officers we mentioned were definitely not casual.
    In the case of the suspensions, those staff were subjected to investigations that lasted four months, the subject of which has still not been made public. Two of those staff members were ‘redeployed’ to other council departments irrelevant to their job descriptions and qualifications. This effectively forced them to resign.
    I disagree with your analysis of casualised labour. I think more often than not it benefits the employer. However, I will say that ASTC rely on a casual workforce exceeding their job descriptions in order to keep the library functioning. Permanent or part time contracts are not forthcoming even when requested by long time casuals. We also saw, as in my case, casuals get switched to very short end term contracts as they begin to approach the length of regular employment in which the employer is legally obligated to offer a part time contract. Casual labour is frequently exploited in these ways.
    In the wake of the decimated workforce many new casual staff have been hired to fill the gaps left by the employees ASTC removed. Given this, your argument that there was no work is frankly incorrect – the library is still running at a lower capacity due to staffing shortages.
    In short, much of the casual workforce there didn’t want to be casual. But ASTC’s actions demonstrate they regard staff as expendable and replaceable.

  10. I am hearing what you are all saying. Did any one of you consider being a union member?
    Or maybe you were. If so, did the union provide any assistance for you, particularly in the case of the permanent staff!
    It surprises me to hear of the stand downs, the investigations, the deployments etc.
    Furthermore, the staff being directed not to talk about it. Directed by whom?
    Surely there must be a union at the council, after all, isn’t there a working agreement to set staff conditions?
    Someone, I believe said an investigation should occur about the sudden stand downs that occurred without notice and without explanations to staff.
    Do you all seriously believe that someone within council, or within the union, if there is one, will be on your side to raise the concerns you have referred to in this article?
    What you all raise is not an image we have of an employer who the residents of this town believe should be above board but more important, an employer who should be scrupulously transparent.
    Contact the NT Ombudsman or the Local Government Association Northern Territory (LGANT), or both.

  11. @ Relieved: This is an employment matter and the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction.
    LGANT generally supports councils and their decisions, good or bad.
    The Fair Work Act is relevant but this was a restructure and I doubt the council breached the Act.
    Of course, the staff approached individual councillors for assistance and despite the sympathetic hearing they received, nothing happened.
    Ultimately, they were told this is an operational matter they could not assist with.
    This disgraceful affair demonstrates that no-one holds the council to account, not even our elected representatives.

  12. Jon, thanks for your response, but never for one moment “doubt” that anything that has occurred at council has “not breached” any Act. I had not heard or read that a restructure had occurred to suspend four senior staff!!!!, let alone eleven.
    In fact, was this a sudden restructure? No one seems to have known why these staff were not present at work!
    I would normally support your comments about elected members however, I have been on the other side of councillors’ response to my allegations about their in-actions as community representatives, which by the way, they have chosen to be.
    Yet, even though they have been elected to represent us, our elected members inform, not just me, but all of us, that they are often held captive to “operational matters”, that appears either to gag them or provide for them, an out, as you have mentioned.
    I fully respect your advice however, it’s time to get a message to the council CEO that his organisation needs serious investigation. Others agree.
    These workers appear to be caught in a bind with what they have experienced and furthermore, it appears evident, they have been left out in the cold by this organisation. But thank you. Your comments are helpful.

  13. @ Relieved: Just be clear. I referred to a library “restructure” as a cover (under the Fair Work Act) that unscrupulous employers resort to.
    Of course, there wasn’t an actual restructure.
    I fully support your comments and thank you for making them.
    We can only hope that at some point we will have courageous elected members that refuse to be held captive to “operational matters”.
    I suspect that a prospective councillor standing on a platform of transparency and accountability would be successful.

  14. Jon, our wisdom, whether it’s a “cover” or not does not help resolve the plight of these workers when they read inaccurate remarks.
    None of us, and particularly those of us who know that unscrupulous employers will stop at nothing, should be writing information that may hinder these workers when they may believe they have a case to argue.
    “Unscrupulous employers,” who use the Act in the manner you describe to “restructure” deserve to be called out.
    They move on workers, as was mentioned in another comment, to place them to an unsuitable position in the organisation or workplace as a form of punishment because they were daring enough to speak out on matters that could be argued were “discriminatory”.
    But, we don’t know if they were suspended for that reason because as I said, “they have been left out in the cold”. No information about misconduct, no information about performance reviews, no anything for the ratepayers to even know.
    Yes, you said it: “This disgraceful affair demonstrates that no one holds this council to account, not even our elected members.”
    All I can say is, vote for those who stand up for Alice Springs when it comes to the next election, drop those who see this council as their platform to a political career.
    It’s the politics at this council that has got our town in the mess we are in.
    But then, maybe we don’t even need the extra expense that it costs us to have a council, and especially one that can’t represent us because of “operational matters”.
    Council employees, speak up or you could be next.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here