Sunday, May 9, 2021

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Home Issue 9 Candidate Cocking: Council must drive the town

Candidate Cocking: Council must drive the town

Jimmy Cocking is clearly taking his pitch for Mayor and Councillor later this year more seriously than most: To gain a second term in local government, preferably as its head, he will be resigning from his job as CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) in June, which over the past seven years he has turned into a significant local player.

But will he continue to be on the wrong side in this faction-driven mini parliament? Cr Cocking spoke with Editor ERWIN CHLANDA.

NEWS: Given the entrenched five-four split in the current council, is it not a waste of time for you and the people voting for you if you cannot guarantee that four other councillors will vote with you? Are you aiming to accomplish that and if so, how?

COCKING: Democracy is about being around the table. It’s a contest of ideas. You’d hope people vote on good ideas rather than on ideological lines.

NEWS: Have they been?

COCKING: Sometimes, but not nearly enough. There have been some good moments in council when we all have contributed to get better outcomes. 

NEWS: For example?

COCKING: We got the flag on the hill, we’re standing up for Traditional Owners as part of the objection to the art gallery location, climate action plan, we have a youth engagement plan, we’re still talking about an adventure and all access playground, something that’s yet to eventuate. The recycling rates are getting better. There is a lot more to do in that space. 

NEWS: Most of these things are in the future.

NEWS COCKING: They are things being developed. We need strong advocacy for our town, to lobby higher levels of government, be around the table, put forward big projects and big ideas.

NEWS: Which big projects? Where are they?

COCKING: The CEO has brought together players around CARGO, the 35 groups in the Central Australian Regional Group of Organisations, workshopping some ideas. Housing, infrastructure and roads, developing the region.

NEWS: Which housing and which roads?

COCKING: The Tanami, the Outback Way. We have a public housing crisis here, the NT has the highest homelessness in Australia. Huge waiting times for public housing. It’s not the council’s responsibility but it can advocate. Rangers are dealing with people sleeping rough and helping them access services. We have silos – council, Tangentyere and so on. There is no greater plan, greater overarching vision for the town and region that we’re all working on together.

NEWS: This is all in the future. What can the council point to in the past four years?

COCKING: There is the start of a youth program, advocacy for youth hubs, $6.2m roll out of sports infrastructure. Unfortunately we wasted three and a half years to get Cr Satour’s and Phillip Alice’s vision of a Traditional Owner Foot patrol up and now we are only just running a trial. 

NEWS: What about the really big projects? Pressure on the government to provide flood protection, for example?

COCKING:  In the CARGO project is a line about flood protection. Lifting of Taffy Pick and having a bridge there was part of the Flood Mitigation Plan. They are still looking at a retention basin north of the town. Neither have moved forward. The biggest issue is the width of The Gap, there is the rail and the road taking up a third. A tunnel could potentially take care of it. Or a bridge through The Gap, a double carriageway on stilts. The water would flow underneath.

NEWS: Is the council in favour of that?

COCKING: I don’t think the council has a view on it and currently, I can’t speak on behalf of council. 

NEWS: The council has no view about the destruction of the major landform in Alice Springs with high traditional significance and absolutely beautiful and someone wants to put a bridge over it?

 

COCKING: Through the middle, yes.

The dreads will go, for charity.

NEWS: And the council has no view on it?

COCKING: Again, I can’t speak on behalf of council, but from memory we were consulted at the time, but there was also the view that this is far off into the future, like in 10 years. Council should lead on issues like that, facilitate a long term plan, as it should on other issues, including youth engagement, community safety, sustainability, buffel grass and weeds, housing, water, renewable energy – get all the players together. I also think we should have a regional development role. That means we have to invest in a regional development team within the council. We are the municipal government, the inland capital of this vast area. We don’t just serve the 25,000 people who live here. We service the 55,000 people who live in the region, and the hundreds of thousands of tourist that – hopefully – come through here. The Territory Government doesn’t have a lot of spare cash. Unfortunately they are putting a lot of focus on the [gas rich region] Beetaloo at the expense of a renewable energy future. 

NEWS: Should the council have a leading role in CARGO?

COCKING: Yes, all the organisations who work in the region need to be around the table to make that happen. That way we can pool resources, we can collaborate on things, we can join up and make things happen, rather than all trying to compete for dwindling NT Government funds and competing against each other to get Federal funds. A regional deal! We need a plan, a vision for going forward.

NEWS: Why hasn’t that happened? There are people in this council in their second and third term.

COCKING: It is my first term but I’ve been advocating for a lot of this well before being on council.

NEWS: Doesn’t that mean you need a group that has the majority in council? Dealing with the old five to four issue?

NEWS COCKING: In my first three months in council, in November 2017, I put forward a motion for a master plan for the town. There was some hope with the NTG Inland Capital Committee. We did some workshops on that but it didn’t move forward. 

NEWS: So why is it not happening?

COCKING: The NTG wound it up and council has been distracted a lot this term, with a majority of members – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – standing for the Federal and Territory election. There has been a politicisation of council. That needs to change. The council should work as a team, even if we don’t have to agree all the time.

NEWS: Should councillors be required to enter into an actionable agreement not to stand for election elsewhere?

COCKING: It should not be that restrictive.

NEWS: Why not?

COCKING: People have the right to seek higher office. There is nothing in the Local Government Act to stop them from doing so.

NEWS: Should there be?

COCKING: It’s a hard thing. Sometimes people feel the call. We need to work out, as a council, how we don’t lose our way in the process when people do run. More than half the councillors including the Mayor and Deputy Mayors ran in the Federal and Territory elections this term. That’s disruptive and distracting. Council could have a policy around that but ultimately it is up to the electorate to decide.

NEWS: A current disruption seems to be the split between operational and political matters. Whom does the CEO answer to?

COCKING: The councillors. The Mayor has an office next to him, but under the Act the CEO answers to Council. He is responsible to us, the councillors.

NEWS: Can ask the CEO any questions whatsoever, be it about operational or policy issues, and he is required to give you an answer?

COCKING: Definitely. We have to understand what’s happening operationally. That doesn’t mean we micro-manage. He’s got a job to do.

NEWS: Who draws the line between what’s micro-managing and what is not? If there is one hole in one footpath, can you ask him: Has that hole been fixed?

COCKING: Totally. That’s different to how it gets done. If people call me and say, hey, there is a risk or hazard or there is something wrong I pass that on to either the director through the CEO or directly to the CEO.

NEWS: If you ask the CEO a question about it, do you expect an answer?

COCKING: Yes. And if it hasn’t been done I would call him up. Generally that doesn’t happen because it gets done.

NEWS: Who draws the limits of what he can be asked, the CEO or you?

COCKING: There is no limit about what we can ask. The CEO can take it on notice. If they don’t know.

NEWS: Does he ultimately have to give you an answer?

COCKING: Yes.

NEWS: Is he required to give you an answer to any question you care to ask?

COCKING: Yes, that’s my understanding. 

NEWS: Recycling our sewage is a big project, talked about for decades.

COCKING: Power and Water hasn’t been able to work that out.

NEWS: Could the council not work that out? Draw up a plan, cost it and present a coherent project to implement?

COCKING: This costs money. Plus there are the silos that currently exist. It is a Power & Water responsibility and the government would have to direct them to do so. In the reconstruction committee report is reference to increasing water efficiency. We’re mining our aquifer. The water gets one turn, then it’s put in the ponds from which it evaporates. Like many things here, that needs to change.

PHOTO at top: A tour of the Regional Waste Management Facility in 2019, from left, Rachel O’Leary, Jimmy Cocking, The War on Waste‘s Craig Reuchassel, Oliver Eclipse, Gardening Australia‘s Costa Georgiadis, Mayor Damien Ryan. Photo supplied.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Jimmy is one of the few members of council I have seen at local events while not being paid. A great community minded fellow who I hope does well, and can help lift this town out of its 10 year slump.

  2. Disappointing to see Jimmy Cocking glossing over deep-seated issues of transparency in the council.
    Case in point: Despite what Cocking says, the CEO is clearly not accountable to the elected members.
    The solar lights debacle is a glaring example of this.
    Last year, there was community outrage over the ugly solar lights in Hartley Street.
    CEO Jennings reassured council by saying they could easily be moved and he would look into this option and report back.
    He said he was looking for a win win situation.
    But without any reporting back from CEO Jennings on moving the lights, the council was informed that the lighting upgrade is complete.
    Selection and installation of the lights was an operational issue which meant that the CEO did not feel any obligation to respond to elected members or even keep his firm commitment to report back.
    Despite subsequent complaints by councillors nothing has been done.
    The council has not moved the lights and nor has CEO Jennings reported back on options to do so.
    So much for the CEO being accountable to the elected members.
    If he is serious about becoming Mayor, Jimmy Cocking needs to confront the failings of the council, not make excuses or gloss over them.
    He needs to lead a process of change to give ratepayers our voice, through the members we vote into office.

  3. Ralph,
    I suspect that “community outrage over the ugly solar lights in Hartley Street” was confined to a handful of people.
    On the whole, light being provided where it was needed from a renewable source, probably met with approval from most of the people who even thought about it.
    Scarcely a major issue.
    It reminded me of a conference presentation at a “Tracks and Trails” meeting I attended in WA couple of decades ago.
    A very serious self righteous chap gave a talk about how his group had pressured the owners of a wind farm to fund the re-routing of a section of the Bibbulmun Track around a wind turbine.
    We subsequently walked that section, detoured under the turbine, and stood there in awe and appreciation of the majestic machine, and the renewable energy being produced.

  4. Given your level of influence you describe here, including the accountability of the CEO to you and the other elected members, the following should present no problems:
    Remind CEO Jennings that his report on moving the hideous solar lights is way overdue.
    He will then, of course, provide council with this document before the next meeting.
    Choose an option to move the lights at the next meeting.
    Then simply pass a motion to adopt that option. I can’t imagine there will be any nay sayers.
    We can then sit back and watch the solar lights being relocated elsewhere.
    Problem solved!
    This could be a personal coup for you and will demonstrate the truth of claims made in your interview.

  5. @ Charlie Carter: But surely it should be up to the council to decide whether or not the solar lights are a major issue.
    Elected members did not get a chance to examine options to move the lights and decide the best way forward.
    CEO Jennings did not report options to elected members and made the call that the lighting was complete.
    Jimmy Cocking says: “CEO answers to Council. He is responsible to us, the councillors.”
    Does CEO Jennings know that?

  6. @ Ralph Folds: Perhaps someone should send him a memo. Or would that be getting into Operational (AKA Mind Your Own Business territory)?

  7. Jimmy Cocking, I suspect the you have not taken any of the actions I requested to return decision making to the elected members of council.
    You didn’t because no matter what the Act says about the accountability of the CEO to elected members, the Alice Springs Town Council does not work that way.
    You were correct to say that “under the Act the CEO answers to council. He is responsible to us, the councillors”.
    The Act says what should (actually must) happen but that is very different to what really happens.
    I believe that you can bring matters to the attention of CEO Jennings, and even follow them up with him.
    Your view, along with others, are taken into account by the CEO in his decision making.
    But Jennings, along with his senior staff, have far more influence than you and the other elected members.
    Some decisions go your way and some don’t.
    As a team player you go along with and support all decisions, including ones Jennings makes that you don’t agree with.
    Council staff regard the elected members as little more than a distraction that sometimes get in the way of them doing their jobs as they see fit.
    With solid staff backing CEO Jennings ignores much of council meeting activity and silly demands, such as asking for an options paper on the solar lights removal.
    If councillors challenge the status quo and get too uppity, council staff will remind them to butt out as recently reported by Marli Banks.
    The elected members put a veneer of democracy on the council but are not at all central to decision making about how our rates are spent.
    That is very different from the picture you paint in your interview.
    No doubt, ratepayers will decide which they find more credible when it comes time to vote.

  8. @ Charlie Carter: I am one of those who strongly object to the ugly forest of solar trees as it is an expensive way to scream “Solar City!”.
    In my mind, it also proudly says “look at our stupidity” and is not a good look when two or three additional streetlights, matching those already in the area and hooked up to the existing electricity grid, would have been a more appropriate solution.
    Solar lighting should be used more sensibly, in making safer the many places around town where reticulated power is not available.

  9. @ Domenico Pecorari: Reading back through the record of council deliberations on the ugly solar lights it is clear that most elected members share your opinion and a few have continued to complain.
    That even options to move the lights have not been able to be discussed is evidence to support Susan Sidler’s insightful analysis on power and influence within the council.
    If her analysis is even half correct then Jimmy Cocking’s grand plan for the council to drive the town is like proclaiming that a 1980s era Holden Commodore can win a Formula 1 race.

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