Bringing people along for the ride

Local Government in the Tumut region underwent its biggest upheaval in more than a century last year when two councils were dissolved and the Snowy Valleys Council created.

There’s a lot more change in store before Administrator Paul Sullivan ends his time as head of the new organisation in less than nine months.

Mr Sullivan has the difficult task of meeting a host of reform objectives outlined by a state government which has promised an almost Utopian-esqe organisation, with promises of better services and infrastructure while also generating millions of dollars in savings.

Scale, capacity, community engagement and a bunch of other buzz words that are difficult to quantify will all be improved by the merger, the state government has assured.

Mr Sullivan has only until September 9 to create that organisation, when elections will be held and his administration comes to an end.

Before then, an organisational review of the workforce has to be completed and put in place. The different back-end IT systems of the former councils will be integrated. Some $8.5 million in infrastructure projects are slated to be determined.

Budgets must be merged, as well as strategies such as tourism. In many cases, consultants have been brought in to do the heavy lifting.

Perhaps the most difficult job will be aligning the disparate cultures of the two former councils. Everyone from the state-appointed delegate who examined the merger proposal, through to the councils themselves, have readily admitted the former Tumut and Tumbarumba organisations operated under different cultures; Tumbarumba working on a more familiar standing with its community; Tumut having a stricter regulatory regime.

As can happen in these situations, the former Tumbarumba council has, in its afterlife, taken on near-reverential adoration from its community.

The truth is Tumbarumba had its fair share of detractors – just ask the people of Khancoban, or those farmers impacted by the Tumbarumba to Rosewood rail trail – and the same criticisms leveled at Tumut (and just about every council) of failing to engage or listen to its community cropped up regularly over the years.

While the prospect of an amalgamation brought the Tumbarumba community together in support of its council, there was no such love for Tumut, where the perception hasn’t altered for some time: it’s continued to be pilloried for a perceived lack of engagement with its communities. In particular the smaller towns of Adelong, Batlow and Talbingo have felt short-changed. The planning department tends to cop most of the backlash.

The glaring difference between the reactions in the former council areas to the amalgamation must surely have given staff at Tumut the hint that there is perhaps a better way to do things – that it’s not just a case of ‘council bashing’ or someone having an axe to grind whenever criticism is levelled at their actions.

The amalgamation of course represents a chance for change. Taking the best of Tumbarumba’s community focused approach, while acknowledging that a larger council area must be subjected to increased regulatory adherence, seems a reasonable goal.

Perhaps significantly, the power balance at the organisational level has shifted up the mountain in recent months.

General manager Bob Stewart, the former head of Tumut and the most vocal proponent of the merger, resigned suddenly two months ago, with little explanation given.

Tumbarumba general manager Kay Whithead now leads the organisation and is likely to do so at least until the election.

Meanwhile, alongside the radical internal overhaul to be completed, there’s also the rather crucial task of building the relationship between the council and its communities.

Generating a sense of community ownership of the new council has been identified as crucial: Ian Chaffey, the former mayor of Tumbarumba, has said as much over and over, at just about every community gathering since the merger.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Mr Chaffey said of the merger at one of the community forums. “This whole process has to be driven by the community and the question is: how do we give the community enough ownership to carry it forward?

“The residents have to feel that they matter.”

They are sage words, but realising it will be difficult, given the state government has chosen to strip away the democratic part of the local government system for more than a year, and forced the merger on a community that didn’t want it.

It’s left a bitterness at Tumbarumba that has been well-documented, but it’s not confined to that region, and was represented in a speech made by Talbingo Progress Association’s Gary Bilton recently, where he addressed the administrator.

He questioned the reasons behind the amalgamation, given both former councils were financially sound, and pointed to the lack of people power under an administration.

“Where is the incentive for us to participate any more?” Mr Bilton asked. “Many believe you (the administrator) will go ahead and do the State Government’s bidding regardless. Paul Toole said Strong Councils means Strong Communities.

“The process so far has significantly disempowered and weakened communities democratically but has inadvertently produced a strong community in opposition to the process and the politics.

“We want to be empowered. Give us back our democracy now.”

Residents will have to wait until September for that to happen. In the meantime, most of the big decisions about the new council will be made undemocratically by the administrator.

Admittedly, consultation with the community must occur as part of the process, but ultimately, it’s the state government that is making the decisions via an appointed administrator, who had no previous ties with our community, and isn’t likely to have any when he departs.

It’s hard to be at all critical of Mr Sullivan himself. He has made every effort to listen – some people say they’ve actually never been consulted more than since the councillors were axed- and he’s done well juggling the needs of the community with his obligations to his employer, the state government.

The crux of the problem is that local government isn’t really a form of government at all: it’s a bureaucratic arm of the state government.

The now departed Mr Stewart summed it up best at a meeting in Tumut.

“Local government is but a service agent of the state government and exists at the whim of the state government,” he said “I’d put it to you we are not a government.”

The forced amalgamation is proof of that statement. All of which makes it difficult now for residents to be too enthused about the new organisation.

It’s also worth remembering Paul Nockles, the state government appointed delegate tasked with examining the merits of the merger, recommended against it: That a merger of Tumut Shire and Tumbarumba Shire not proceed unless the strong opposing attitudes of residents, ratepayers and council staff in Tumbarumba Shire are addressed through a combination of advocacy campaigns and protections of service levels within a new council, he recommended.

Those strong opposing attitudes remain.

Still, the prospect of a new council with a new culture will nonetheless be welcomed by many, and the $10m in funding for community projects and infrastructure provides an opportunity to make a real difference across the shire.

Finding a way to bring the community on board with the amalgamation process remains the key challenge at a time many have realised that the people have far less power than they thought when it comes to their local council.

The interest and involvement of people who voted during the recent logo survey suggests that, despite everything, many are willing to help shape the new council, if asked.