By KIERAN FINNANE
The high expectations – amongst councillors and in the community – of the Traditional Owner Foot Patrol have snagged on the recently enforced sharp division of operational and policy matters in the Town Council.
The business paper report to councillors last night disclosed this much:
“Monday 29 March saw the successful soft launch of the Traditional Owner patrol project with team members completing inductions, initial training and uniform fittings. Discussions [have been] held with 219 people since Monday 29 March 2021.”
Apart from its high profile leader, Phillip Alice, councillors are in the dark as to who else is on the team. That left them to guess why Deputy Mayor Jacinta Price declared a conflict of interest once Councillor Marli Banks had raised the matter in the chamber.
Councillors know nothing about the patrol’s structure, how it will be reported on to them, how its funding is being managed, about whether it comes under the same policy and procedures as other council employees, how public communications about it will be managed.
These, in summary, were points raised by Cr Banks (left).
Director of Corporate Services Sabine Taylor – answering on Community Development questions in the absence of a director for that department (following the sudden departure of Kim Sutton) – offered a tad further detail:
The team has done six days’ work to date; of the people spoken to (in what circumstances we don’t know) 109 were youths, 110 were adults.
With staff they are now “reviewing data” and are “in discussion as to next steps”, she said.
CEO Robert Jennings attempted to dampen Cr Banks’s probing enthusiasm: How the team operates is “largely an operational matter”. It will be governed by policies and procedures and be the subject of regular updates, though “not necessarily in open”, as this is an “operational matter”.
Responding to further pushing by Cr Banks – is it part of the ranger unit? is it under Corporate Services? – Mr Jennings described it as a “community initiative”, championed by Mr Alice and Cr Catherine Satour early in the piece, and he confirmed it will fall under Ms Taylor’s Corporate Services.
Cr Banks pressed on, saying that is unusual for a board not to have knowledge of a corporation’s operations, the board in this instance being council. She feels “uncomfortable” not having that information which would allow her to participate fully in a conversation on the matter in her role as an Elected Member.
Mr Jennings said he would be happy to provide a report, at “a strategic level”, not an operational level.
Cr Banks responded with this crucial point about the operations / policy divide: At end of day, if the program draws criticism, “the buck will stop with us”, ie the Elected Members.
Cr Eli Melky (right) supported Cr Banks’s comments.
He said Elected Members “struggle to understand” what is an appropriate way to request information without stepping over operational boundaries.
He didn’t hear Cr Banks ask operational questions; she asked about progress, structure, funding.
Officers are charged with the responsibility of delivery; Elected Members can ask questions at that level. Funding comes from the ratepayer and it needs to be managed and monitored by Elected Members, he argued.
“I’m entitled to find out every bit of detail to make sure this is a plan that I voted for. If we’re not able to do that, we’re not able to do our job.”
Cr Banks appreciated the support, adding that council needs to address the “shades of grey” in the operations / policy divide.
She asked Mr Jennings to provide “far more clarity” on the issue, saying she can’t accept that her questions are “dismissed as operational” and reiterating that she wants to know the costs of the foot patrol, and what is being done, what is being achieved.
Mayor Damien Ryan attempted to pour cold water on the debate, suggesting that the councillors look at the original motion: officers are “working under those rules at the moment” and a review will be conducted after the pilot.
If they wanted a review “quicker than that”, they should move a motion.
Cr Jimmy Cocking (left) joined in: he has heard more about the patrol from local MLAs than he has in the chamber.
Councillors weren’t invited to the “soft launch”, he noted.
The team is out doing patrols on behalf of council, there is a lot of expectation of them in the community and it’s important for councillors to have information.
“We’re the ones fielding questions in the supermarket,” he said.
He is also a “big fan of adaptive management”, looking at things as they go along and improving where needs be.
Mr Jennings referred to a confidential report to council dated January 28, which gave them “more information than anyone else has”.
A further report to Elected Members has been prepared, he then conceded, but officers could not get it into the business papers on time.
“I’m not sure what else to say, we’re working as hard we can,” said Mr Jennings.
Those assurances don’t save councillors from the embarrassment of being the dark on this project. Nor do they address the fundamental point that it is Elected Members who are held accountable in the court of public opinion and every four years at the ballot box. Who holds council’s officers accountable?
“It’s deeply concerning knowing that some people have more information than we do as Elected Members,” said Cr Banks.
Adding insult to injury, in response to an email to an officer about the project, she had had a reply from another officer, saying that councillors “shouldn’t be asking the questions we are asking”.
She rejected Mayor Ryan’s suggestion that she put a motion. Council has a reporting process and she was using the format of a formal meeting to address the issues around this important public project.
Photo at top: A total of $67,500 was distributed to community groups in a cheque presentation at council’s meeting last night – a feel good moment, which brought into the chamber a large number of the town’s creative movers and shakers (not all of them are in the photo). Mayor Damien Ryan and Deputy Jacinta Price holding the big cheque, other councillors in the back row (not all are visible).
Last updated 14 April 2021, 2.54pm (links added).