CIVILITY flew out the window and the tone of discourse degenerated to a new low at the March meeting of South Gippsland Shire Council last Wednesday.
On the table was the Proposed Annual Budget 2015-2016, incorporating the 15 year Long Term Financial Plan, but anyone hoping to hear a straightforward presentation of the key points on what and how shire services will be funded over the next few years would have been sorely disappointed.
Instead, the packed public gallery was witness to the sorry spectacle of a meeting bogged down by appeals to the Local Government Act on points of order, followed by an exchange of insults between two opposing blocs of councillors, who did not quite come to blows, but were evidently giving vent to months of pent-up frustration.
Notwithstanding the protestations of their fellow councillors, Crs Don Hill and Andrew McEwen pressed on with an attempt to introduce a Notice of Motion for “a new budget strategy”.
An exasperated Cr Jim Fawcett said of Crs Hill and McEwen: “They don’t understand good governance. They either don’t understand the process or they’re playing games…I think they’re playing games.”
Cr Hill would not be deterred, however. He said that the main focus of the new strategy was on raising productivity and performance and diversifying streams. “We’ve just put our toe in the water. We need to go a lot further.”
Cr McEwen stressed the need for Council to “take a strategic business approach through better leadership”.
In vain Cr Mohya Davies pointed out that there had already been 62 hours of discussion over the budget over the last few months, including an unprecedented amount of time devoted to community consultation.
Cr Fawcett said: “Councillors have been given multiple opportunities to give their views and the other councillors have been patient in listening.”
The mayor, Cr Jeanette Harding, summed up the general mood of frustration at one point by asking the two recalcitrant councillors: “How long are we going to have to sit here and listen to you make amendments?”
There is no question that the “new budget strategy,” which Crs Hill and McEwen have titled “South Gippsland at the Cross Roads,” undermines the proposed budget. To add insult to injury in the eyes of the majority of councillors, the document refers to the majority bloc at Council – and their actions – in terms which are anything but complimentary. This, in particular, riled the councillors.
Cr Fawcett accused Crs Hill and McEwen of having written “not an objective report, but a series of motherless statement dressed up as fact” and said it was “a polemic statement rather than an opportunity to inform”. He took especial issue with the councillors writing that “the current budget inevitably has austerity measures in it because our advice was not heeded, falling on deaf ears. We went on spending like a drunken sailor just expecting our community to pick up the tab”. He described as “ludicrous” assumptions such as a 30 per cent population growth in the shire in the short term.
“Let’s hear the next instalment of the fairytale,” he taunted them.
“They employ simplistic mathematics to confuse and create misunderstanding in the community.” Putting on his accountant hat, he added: “It is this sort of Wikipedia and Google fact searching that drives professionals mad!”
Cr Kieran Kennedy did not attend the meeting, but he sent his apologies and a statement, read out by Cr Harding, in which he described the Notice of Motion from Cr Hill and Cr McEwen as “the least collaborative in 12 years”.
His fellow councillors were much less restrained in their summation of the situation. Cr Lorraine Brunt said that the “new budget strategy” was full of non-credible and exaggerated information and misleading figures and was nothing short of contemptible.
“This report has been a distraction from the Budget,” said Cr Davies. “It’s a simplistic report and misrepresents the facts.” She said she was disappointed that Crs Hilll and McEwen persisted in trying to make the same points, points which were, she said “lacking in foundation”.
Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks even quoted Rudyard Kipling: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”, and accused Crs Hill and McEwen of twisting shire officers’ facts to suit their arguments.
There were, he said, “no silver bullets [to fix the budget] as much as we might be lectured to” that there are.
“We’ve had a whole lot of theatre this afternoon. It has been totally unnecessary in my opinion,” he told the gallery. He said that Crs Hill and McEwen wanted credit for budget ideas that were already in train. “It is that behaviour that puts other councillors’ backs up. This is what we have to put up with!” he said, adding that he was particularly exasperated by Cr McEwen’s constant harping on the need for leadership. “One key quality of leadership is to listen,” he pointed out.
One of those in the public gallery was Leongatha resident Wilma Western, and she, for one, was unimpressed. She has written a letter to The Mirror in response. She comments: “The last two Council meetings were anything but shining examples of local democracy in action.”
In her letter she accuses councillors of “hostile nit-picking” and of displaying “personal antagonism”. She concludes: “We really don’t want to hear each side’s personal grouches and one-upping; we just want the business of Council to proceed with adequate and orderly debate, concentrating on policy, principles and the merits and disadvantages of the options being debated. It is possible to have vigorous debate without denigration of those putting the opposing view.”
The proposed budget was eventually endorsed by Council. It is now on public display. It can be examined online or at council offices in Leongatha. Formal written submissions are invited from the public and a further OurSay online engagement process will run through until April 29. There will also be an open Community Question and Answer Session on the proposed budget in Leongatha at 1pm on April 15. Bookings are required.