(This is a copy of the ABE presentation to Eurobodalla Shire Council Public Access Session 4th May 2021. Mayor Liz Innes, Deputy Mayor Rob Pollock and Councillor Thomson were all absent from this session.)
Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to address Council. I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. Over the last few months, ABE has attended markets and other community gatherings across the shire. This has given us the opportunity to talk to the community about what is important to them. This presentation reflects what they are telling us.
ABE has previously addressed Council on the need for genuine community consultation and the importance of obtaining and taking account of relevant expert advice when making decisions. Last month we presented on transparency and open communication which are important for inclusive and accountable government. Today’s presentation focuses on an issue which the community has frequently raised with us – the alienation of public assets.
Alienation can occur in different ways and at various scales, ranging from the closure of an important community facility to the sell off of public reserves that provide welcome open space or the loss of public access to a community asset . This presentation draws on 3 recent examples raised by the community :
1) the closure of Visitor Information Centres;
2) the removal of public access to Coopers Island Road; and
3) the closure and leasing of the Batemans Bay Community Centre.
All of these examples also reflect deficiencies in Council’s community consultation processes and, transparency of decision-making, underscoring yet again how crucial these are to good governance.
Closure of Visitor Information Centres
Council voted on the 8th December 2020 to withdraw from running Visitor Information Centres, based on a report by Sydney consultancy firm Destination Marketing Services. The Batemans Bay Visitor Information Centre closed on the 28th February this year, and the current arrangements for Narooma Visitor Information Centre will end this month. The present visitor services model will be replaced with a “business partnership and digitally serviced model”. Council intends to sell the Batemans Bay site, and has recently issued an EOI to lease the Narooma site, which includes the Lighthouse Museum.
These closures mark the loss of the expertise and knowledge of the Visitor Information Centre staff who represent a friendly and welcoming face to out-of-town tourists as well as associated facilities such as public toilets which will no longer be available to either visitors or locals. But the centres also embody other significant public assets.
- the Batemans Bay Visitor Centre site was gifted to Council on the condition that it looked after the heritage listed Remnant Batemans Bay Cemetery located on part of the site, which also includes a public right of way.
- the Narooma Visitor Information Centre and Museum were both built by the Narooma community. The purpose-built Lighthouse Museum houses the original Montague Island Lighthouse illumination system dating back to 1881. This heritage-listed equipment was valued at $2 million when the museum was commissioned more than thirty years ago and is on permanent loan to Eurobodalla Council from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Both centres also provide exhibition space to showcase the work of local artists.
Interestingly, between the closure of the Batemans Bay Visitor centre and the impending closure of the Narooma Visitor Centre, a brand new $6 million dollar Visitor Welcome Centre at Eden in Bega Valley Shire was launched. This followed the opening of a new Visitor Information Centre in Merimbula in December 2019. Clearly, other councils do not share Eurobodalla Council’s opinion that the days of Visitor Information Centres are over.
Removal of Public Access to Coopers Island Road
This issue relates to the erection of a gate on Coopers Island Road in October 2019 without an approved Gate Permit, putting it in breach of requirements under the NSW Road Act 1993. The surrounding land owner has also erected a sign near the gate implying that the road is private property.
Coopers Island Road is in fact a public road that provides access to Trunketabella Lake and a privately owned farm. The road has long been an access point for many Koori families who traditionally fished in Bowns Creek, and for many locals and visitors who enjoy fishing, prawning and boating along this waterway. Members of the public can legally fish or launch from the causeway, provided the area is left in good condition and traffic flow is not obstructed.
Eurobodalla Council maintains the road, causeway and the bridge. They have been aware of the illegal gate since October 2019, and requested then that the property owners provide an application for a gate permit. However, a GIPA request indicates that Council only received a permit application from the landowner on the 17th February 2021, some 16 months after Council’s request.
It is difficult to understand how this situation has been allowed to escalate to a point where it requires consideration by Councillors. Instead, it should have prompted routine compliance action by Council staff as required under the Roads Act. Particularly since Council had been approached about the issue on several occasions in the intervening period by representatives of recreational fishers, local community associations and members of the Koori community
The extended delay in taking any regulatory action has fuelled community unease and there is speculation that Council’s lack of action is the result of ongoing negotiations for the purchase of the public road by the adjoining landowner. This would remove public access to this valuable community asset and has significant implications for many other public roads and assets throughout the Eurobodalla Shire, as well as public liability implications for Council.
Closure and Leasing of the Batemans Bay Community Centre
The Batemans Bay Community Centre is an important purpose-built facility providing a significant community service and contributing to community cohesion. It has a central location in the Shire’s largest urban centre. No other facility offers the same utility as this Centre. Expert advice tells us that strong community connections are a key to recovering from disasters such as the bushfires and COVID-19, yet Council voted to close the Centre and lease it out at the end of June 2021.This decision has impacted a wide range of community groups.
Importantly, the decision to lease the Batemans Bay Community Centre prior to the opening of the Batemans Bay Aquatic, Arts and Leisure Centre also contradicted previous advice given to community groups by Council’s General Manager, namely that they would be able to use the Community Centre until the new Aquatic & Leisure Centre was operational. Community groups were also not made aware that Council was willing to accept a non-commercial rental rate for the premises, or that sub-letting would be acceptable, since neither of these aspects were mentioned in Council’s Expression of Interest. This prevented any interested community groups from applying at the time.
This example reflects poor administrative practice as well as a lack of transparency and meaningful consultation, which undermined community trust and cohesion during these troubled times.
Today’s presentation has provided examples where the alienation of public assets has been occurring under the management of the current Council, and how these have been associated with a lack of transparency and genuine community consultation.
Thank you for your attention.
Dr Brett Stevenson
A Better Eurobodalla