Bottom drawers and community consultation 27.1.2012

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I just sent a submission to Council’s draft community engagement charter:

bottom drawer here we come.

My issue is with the need for Council to provide GENUINE engagement with the community.

As a medical practitioner I am taught to avoid defending a position when faced with patient opposition – if I tell a patient that I know best in spite of their disagreement with my treatment, all that will happen is that their opposition and dissatisfaction will increase.

Council needs to avoid a formulaic approach to consultation and feedback.Ticking boxes, standing back and saying that consultation has taken place should have no place in local government.

As a member of a volunteer community group that has spent over two years trying to engage with Council on the matter of the Laman Street trees, I would like to start by telling you how not to engage with the public.

A Newcastle Voice survey was done on respondents’ vision for the future of Laman Street and Civic Park in early 2010. In the summary of the results, answers were grouped by vision: ie if I wanted to retain the trees, that’s how my vision was characterised; if I wanted to replace the trees, similarly my vision was called ‘replace’. Disappointingly one only had to mention the word ‘replace’ to be characterised as a ‘replace’ vision. I said in my submission ‘If the trees truly have to be replaced then I would like a staged replacement policy’ or similar. My vision was called ‘replace’. This could not have been a simple mistake.

A charrette was held about the Laman Street trees in March 2010: council management failed the community by appearing to broaden the scope of the workshop/community consultation process so that it was about Laman Street as well as Civic Park. I believe elected councillors were misled by staff to agree to this.

All this did was allow less time to talk about the most controversial issue, ie the future and alleged danger of the trees. There was no flexibility at the charrette to widen or indeed narrow the discussion; the days were tightly managed, possibly in order to avoid discussion on the most important issues, people were separated from the colleagues they arrived with, and they were kept busy filling in sticky notes. The end result was a document that closely resembled the 2005 Civic Park vision produced years before.

The information provided at the charrette was skewed and referred to almost any tree but the Laman Street trees: photographs produced were of other tree failures and no evidence was produced about Laman Street.

A friend attended a community consultation session about National Park recently and felt that important issues such as the plan of management were glossed over by the consultant running the evening.

In the two years since the Laman St issue began, no one in council was proactive in trying to engage with those opposed to destroying the Laman Street streetscape. I believe there’s a line in the sustainability review that says council should avoid engaging with the’ vocal minority’ – men are the vocal minority; anyone who engages with council is by definition the vocal minority. This is a culture that is toxic to community engagement.

I do believe encouraging the community to give feedback is important but the feedback needs to be dealt with meaningfully. There should be a requirement for the staff member contacted to reply to communications, even if it is to say that the email was passed onto another part of council to deal with. I have on numerous occasions received no response to emails.

It’s one thing to say you will use ‘best practice consultation techniques‘, it’s another to carry this out. If NCC is simply going to keep doing what it has done on Laman St and employ expensive consultants to shut people up, you will fail – and wastefully.

I believe that one of the most common reasons for residents to phone council with a complaint is when trees are felled. NCC needs a tree notification page and a long enough period of time to alert residents that trees are being removed so they can give feedback to council.  The page should contain enough information to inform the public about the reasons why the trees are being removed; it would be helpful and ideal to upload arborists’ reports on this page.

Marrickville Council  is an example of a council that has such a page. Other councils look to Newcastle for many aspects of tree management and it would be a move we could as a city be proud of.

I can see no reason to ‘regularly promote and celebrate the achievements of Council and the local community’. How much money do we have to spend on PR? I suspect Council spend enough on moves that bolster staff morale – there’s certainly more food at meetings than I can jump over. Management should manage positvely and humanely, so that advertising NCC’s achievements should not be something that is needed to keep the workforce happy. And let’s face it – councils are always going to be criticised so why spend ratepayer money trying to avoid this?

Yours sincerely,

Caitlin Raschke

 

I’ll post the update letter later – I’m off to Sips and Nibbles in Laman Street – one of the last x

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