SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council appears to be onto a winner in partnering with online engagement provider OurSay to improve community engagement with its ratepayers.
An informal survey of people attending the workshops held at Meeniyan last Tuesday as the next step after the OurSay online forum on the Shire Budget, recorded positive results, and there has been widespread praise for Council for taking the initiative to engage OurSay.
“It’s a good concept. If it is refined a bit it could be of great value to the council and the community,” said Ian Lyon, who was among a contingent of Foster Pool supporters who attended one of the Budget workshops. He added: “It is pleasing to see Council going to the effort of setting up a system of hearing what the community wants.”
Mr Lyon said he will be interested to see how Council follows through with the feedback it has received through OurSay. “The results are so clear surely Council will need to respond positively to the top issues identified by the community.”
Council has partnered with OurSay to undertake community consultation on a range of council activities over the next 12 months. The first consultation is focusing on the Council Budget for 2015-2016.
Cr Don Hill, who has long been keen for Council to engage better with the community, expressed great enthusiasm for the OurSay process. He pointed out that as few as 25 ratepayers made submissions or attended workshops during last year’s Budget making process. Then 200 or so participated in the online survey he conducted. With OurSay that figure has grown to around 700. “That’s an amazing number. If this process is handled properly we could get 2000 people contributing,” said a delighted Cr Hill.
By the time voting closed on 14 November, 662 people had registered for the OurSay online forum and there had been more than 4000 votes placed for a total of 98 ideas. The top half a dozen ideas and priorities were made the focus of the afternoon and evening community workshops at Meeniyan Hall last Tuesday.
About 25 people attended the afternoon session, in addition to shire councillors and staff and three OurSay facilitators, and about 28 the evening session.
A large percentage of attendees at the workshops came from the Corner Inlet area, among them Foster resident Meg Knight. In the past Ms Knight has expressed frustration with how Council manages its financial affairs with apparent disregard for the views of its ratepayers, but after the OurSay consultation she commented: “It is really great for Council to be trying something new. It demonstrates that they’re trying to listen.”
Ms Knight was pleased to be given the opportunity to speak up at the workshop. She is concerned about the shire’s regular rate rises, believing they should be kept to a minimum, ideally no more than the CPI. Zero based budgeting is the way to go, she believes, with Council given a defined amount to spend and then prioritising what services the money should be spent on.
Ms Knight’s interest in the Budget was much more general than that of most people at the workshops, but even those people who had come along to talk up a particular priority for Budget spending – such as swimming pools or the arts – listened to the other ideas respectfully and were happy to contribute to the general discussion.
Carol Lester’s idea to “work to keep the Foster Swimming Pool operating, heated and improved as an integral part of the Foster community” received the most online votes, so was given top billing at the workshops. Other popular ideas were: the redevelopment of the Mirboo North pool, free green waste deposits year-round at shire transfer stations, an equestrian centre at Stony Creek and greater priority for the arts.
These were all discussed at the workshops, with the facilitators getting attendees to come up with suggestions as to what firstly the community and secondly Council could do in order to realise these dreams. The workshop discussions were recorded and filmed in part and can be viewed on the OurSay website, where there will also be responses from Council.
The shire’s manager of community relations, Christian Stefani, will collate the ideas and present them in a report for Councillors to consider in their closed sessions in January and February preparing the Budget and Annual Plan.
Mr Stefani said that a number of people expressed regret that they were unable to attend either of last Tuesday’s workshops and there will possibly be another workshop if there is sufficient interest.
He said there will certainly be further OurSay community consultations. What they will focus on is still up in the air, but consideration is being given to a discussion on coal seam gas – the idea received many votes at the Budget OurSay. Other possible OurSay topics are the shire’s Aquatic Strategy and the impact of seasonal population explosions on coastal towns.
“We welcome feedback from anyone as to how we can use the OurSay process,” said Mr Stefani. “I’d be interested to know what younger members of the community would like. Perhaps this could be a subject for OurSay.”