ABE Presentation to Council 12 October

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to address Council this morning regarding two items on today’s agenda, these being :

GMR21/053 –  Application for a public gate permit on Coopers Island Road;

PSR21/049 – Land & Road Reserve Classification – Clarke Street Broulee

I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. ABE expects that before governments, at any level, make decisions that will impact their communities, they will undertake broad and meaningful consultation, listen to and share expert advice, and proceed using a transparent decision-making process so that the community understands who makes decisions, when and why.

ABE has applied these principles to both Coopers Island Road and Clarke Street Broulee in our previous presentations to Council, as each have significant implications for the effective management of public assets and implementation of good governance in the Eurobodalla.

I will now outline ABE’s recommendations for each of these agenda items.

Public Gate on Cooper’s Island Road (GMR21/051)

ABE notes that this issue has been unnecessarily complicated by Council’s tardiness in addressing it, which dates back to mid-2019. 

ABE’s previous presentations to Council focussed on public safety and good governance aspects of this case, and these considerations should remain paramount in Council’s deliberations today. Of the 2 options presented to Councillors in the agenda papers, ABE recommends that Option 1 should be chosen, i.e. refuse the gate permit application and direct the adjoining owner to fence the road reserve, with $5,000 of financial support from Council. ABE considers that without fencing along the road reserve, the possibility of stock interactions with public road users cannot be avoided, raising significant public safety and liability concerns.

If Council chooses to go with Option 2 and approve the gate permit, ABE recommends that this approval be conditioned by requiring the adjoining owner to properly fence the boundary of the road reserve for the reasons already discussed. This could be accomplished by including this requirement in the conditions of approval for the gate permit, which need to be backed up by rigorous compliance and enforcement measures.

Council should make sure that any decision made today is fully compliant with requirements of the NSW Roads Act, and ensures that the adjoining landowner complies with the requirements for control of stock under relevant NSW legislation. This decision also needs to demonstrate that Council is properly discharging its “duty of care” obligations regarding public safety, which have significant implications for public liability and insurance considerations.

Land & Road Reserve Classification – Clarke Street Broulee (PSR21/049)

ABE welcomes the detailed chronology of the site included in the PSR21/049 agenda paper today, and considers that this compilation provides a good starting point from which to make a sound decision based on publicly available information.

ABE notes the original decision of Councillors in 2003 to classify this parcel of land as community land has never been rescinded, and so should now be finally implemented, bringing this 18 year oversight to a satisfactory conclusion. ABE also notes that Council’s Director of Planning issued a press statement on the 29th June indicating that this block was Community Land, and that Council has recently received a substantial petition from the Broulee community urging that this parcel of land be classified as community land. This is included in today’s agenda papers under PET21/003.

After reviewing this information, ABE recommends that Councillors adopt Option 2, to close the road reserve and classify the lot and road reserve as community land. ABE considers that this would provide the greatest public benefit going forward, and create a significant community asset which could facilitate multiple uses for a variety of community sectors, including Landcare, tourism, Aboriginal and European heritage and public education. It would provide an ideal opportunity for Council to work constructively and in good faith with the Broulee community to achieve a fair outcome which maintains this important piece of community land for future use and enjoyment by everyone.

Conclusion

The decisions regarding Coopers Island Road and Clarke Street Broulee provide opportunities for elected Councillors to prove their commitment to both the community and good public administration via retention and effective management of these precious public assets. ABE therefore urges Councillors to make community well being, public safety and good governance the basis of their deliberations today.

Thank you for your attention.

Brett Stevenson

Co-Convenor

A Better Eurobodalla

ABE Presentation to Council 27th July

ABE Public Forum Presentation Regarding QON21/005 Land Clearing at Broulee

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to address Council and the community regarding QON 21/005, dealing with clearing of community land at Broulee.

I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. ABE expects that before governments, at any level, make decisions that will impact their communities, they will undertake broad and meaningful consultation, listen to and share expert advice, and proceed using a transparent decision-making process so that the community understands who makes decisions, when and why.

ABE has applied these principles to the issue of the clearing of community land at Broulee and concludes that the response provided by Council staff does not satisfactorily address the issues raised by Councillor Mayne’s questions, and raises serious concerns that Council’s actions are based on inaccurate information which leave the process under a legal cloud. The advice submitted includes unsubstantiated assertions, for which no supporting documentation has been provided. Key concerns are briefly outlined below, organised under the 2 different parcels of land which make up the site under consideration

1. Unformed Road Parcel

Consideration of this portion of land constitutes the bulk of the response to Councillor Mayne’s Question on Notice, yet the material presented fails to address key questions included in QON21/005, especially regarding how the land was cleared for Asset Protection Zone (APZ) requirements for the adjoining subdivision. The Rural Fire Service APZ guidelines clearly state that “The APZ should be located wholly within your land. You cannot undertake any clearing of vegetation on a neighbour’s property, including National Park estate, Crown land or land under the management of your local council, unless you have written approval.” So, the only possible way that the unformed road could have been legally cleared is if Council gave its written permission.  

Council’s response has not included documentation regarding any such written permission associated with this APZ, and it has also failed to address Councillor Mayne’s question regarding the “in perpetuity” legal requirements associated with creation of an APZ on a neighbouring property. Council staff have not provided any documentation that the RFS is satisfied with these APZ arrangements. These are important legal considerations relevant to public safety and emergency response. They need to be responded to and not ignored.

Furthermore there is also a legal question as to whether Council even has the delegated authority to enter into such APZ arrangements, particularly if they have not been approved by a meeting of Council. This is because section 377h of the LGA indicates that the “purchase, sale or exchange or surrender of any land or property” cannot be delegated to Council staff, so any decision in this regard must be authorised by a resolution of Councillors. No mention of any such resolution or relevant documentation has been provided in the advice tendered for the Broulee APZ, meaning that these arrangements remain under a legal cloud. This important aspect needs to be fully investigated and resolved before any further actions are taken in regard to this land.

In addition, there is also the critical fact that Council was directed by Eurobodalla Council Resolution 478 in 2003 to classify this parcel of land (along with the adjoining parcel of lot 89) as “community land”, but failed to do so. The Council advice coyly describes this unambiguous directive as being “unfortunately not implemented”, when in fact this is a major error of omission which is inconsistent with provisions of the LGA specifying that only Councillors, and not Council staff, have the non-delegatable authority in dealing with matters affecting  Council land (as reflected in section 377h of the LGA). Simply because a serious oversight has occurred in the past does not excuse or validate current day actions arising from this error, particularly after the error has been brought to Council’s attention.

2. Lot 89/DP1093710 (formerly Lots 8 & 9 in DP758168)    

This lot adjoins the unformed road parcel discussed above, and was also subject of Council Resolution 478 in 2003 directing that it be classified as Community Land. However, this action was in fact redundant, as the constituent blocks 8 & 9 in DP 758168 were already classified as Community Land, as indicated in Council’s own 1997 Plan of Management for Natural Areas & Undeveloped Land on Pages 4 and 5 of Schedule A.  

At some stage after 2007, these two blocks were consolidated to create Lot 89/DP1093710, which Council is now claiming to be Operational Land, despite the fact that the antecedent blocks were both classified as Community Land. Council has not provided any evidence that the status of this parcel of land has been altered by means of public notification and passage of a resolution of Council, as required by the LGA 1993. To confuse matters even further, Council’s Director of Planning issued a press statement on the 29th June indicating that this block was indeed Community Land, but Council has subsequently told the Broulee community that it now considers this land is Operational Land, and intends to sell it. This about-face is inexplicable. It reflects extremely poor practice of governance and communication, and has further eroded public confidence in Council. It should be reversed.

It is also notable that the documentation cited in Council’s advice contains additional problematic information. The briefing contains reference to DA00035/21, and when this item is looked up on Council’s online application tracker the summary information page indicates that the estimated cost of this 48 lot residential subdivision is zero dollars, without any explanation being provided (see attached screenshot). This anomalous result flags further potential issues with Council’s own information system, further eroding public confidence in this critical decision-support system which needs to be urgently addressed.

This presentation has made it clear that there are significant unanswered questions regarding the legality of Council’s actions and the reliability of the information it has used to determine its actions regarding this parcel of land in Broulee. For Councillors to meekly accept this advice offered by Council staff regarding public land at Broulee would make them complicit in potentially unlawful activities at odds with requirements of the Local Government Act, as well as being inconsistent with fundamental public administration principles of good governance and transparency, not to mention common decency.

ABE notes that this QoN provides another opportunity for elected Councillors to prove their commitment both to the community and to good public administration. ABE therefore urges Councillors not to accept the advice tendered today. Instead, they should take appropriate steps to work constructively and in good faith with the Broulee community to achieve an equitable outcome which maintains this important piece of community land for future use and enjoyment by everyone.

Thank you for your attention.

Brett Stevenson

Co-convenor

A Better Eurobodalla

Attachment : Screen Capture from Council’s DA Tracker

ABE Presentation to Council 6th July 2021

Improving Quality and Transparency of ESC Decision-making

I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum
dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. ABE expects that
before governments, at any level, make decisions that will impact their communities,
they will undertake broad and meaningful consultation, listen to and share expert
advice, and proceed using a transparent decision-making process so that the
community understands who makes decisions, when and why.


Today ABE is applying these principles to the issue of good decision-making by our
Council. This is the last opportunity we have to present at the ESC public access
session before the September election of Mayor and Councillors. ABE has presented
to this Council in public forum and public access sessions over many months. A
characteristic of all those presentations is the fundamental importance of good
decision-making in delivering good governance. ABE believes that the citizens of
Eurobodalla have a right to expect that our local government authority will make the
best decisions for us using the principles of transparency, accountability, genuine
consultation, and applying expert advice – all the things that ABE has been
presenting on and writing to Council about.


Eurobodalla is widely recognised for its natural beauty. However, in the last 18
months it has been subject to major bushfires; flooding; Covid19 effects on business
and the community; increased migration of people from other centres causing severe
housing shortages, and other social issues. In short, the strategic environment has
changed.


There are two ways Council decisions are made – those made by Councillors and
those made under delegation by the general manager who, in turn, delegates to
Council staff. Under the Local Government Act, Councillors are responsible for all
outcomes relating to decisions made at Council meetings and the operational ones
made by Council staff. Implementing the decisions made by Councillors is usually
delegated to the general manager. It should be noted, however, that Councillors
have the discretion at any stage to review, amend or reject aspects of the
implementation process as they see fit.


Councillors are also responsible for the Council’s assets and financial reserves; and
for all investment and expenditure outcomes. They have a duty to ensure decisions
are based on full, accurate and balanced evidence, are financially responsible and
take into consideration the views of ratepayers. 

The quality of Councillors’ decision-making is influenced and dependent on advice and support from the general manager and Council staff. Councillors need to actively engage in a process that results in good decision-making. This requires them to:

  • be independent in their thinking,
  • listen to their community, and
  • be willing to interrogate staff and ask for additional information in briefing sessions and again in council meetings prior to making decisions.

A current operating practice that can inhibit Councillors’ ability to make good decisions is the onerous confidentiality requirements that prevent them from seeking community input or expert advice on material that they have been briefed on by staff. ABE believes that there is an overuse of confidentiality provisions that must be reviewed by our next Council.

To properly discharge their responsibilities, Councillors must ensure that appropriate processes are in place to enable them to be fully briefed about significant issues so that they are presented with impartial, evidence-based options including the key outcomes and costs before making decisions. In particular, where major financial, environmental, economic and public interest decisions are involved, they need:

  • full consultation with Councillors and the shire community
  • optimised community awareness through webcasting of public forum and other presentation processes at meetings, and
  • the evidence relating to decisions made as publicly available as possible rather than the blanket use of ‘commercial in confidence’ and ‘legal privilege’ firewalls.  

A poor administrative practice witnessed recently is Councillors being given a revised motion without notice to vote on either in, or immediately prior to, Council meetings with assertions that it should or must be immediately endorsed. This has happened particularly on contentious issues where there has been strong community engagement. This practice does not allow the time Councillors need to fully consider the implications of decisions by seeking advice and consulting with each other and constituents.

An under-used facility is advice that can be gained from the Advisory Committees of
Council. These committees provide a mechanism for allowing expert and community
input to decision-making, provided they operate fairly and transparently. Many other
Councils also include and give responsibilities to advisory committees in the
delegation process such as for finance, audit, infrastructure, environment,
community services and sustainability. ABE seeks more open referrals to our
Eurobodalla committees combined with improved resourcing and transparency in the advice they offer.

Since the decision of Councillors at its meeting in August 2017, all of the
discretionary delegations are held by the general manager. She in turn has
delegated many of these to her directors (who also often sub-delegate), with all
reporting to Council being through her office. The use of delegations is appropriate –
Councillors cannot make all the day to day decisions required of Council. Whoever
makes decisions, there are characteristics of good decision making that should be
followed.


The ESC has a Delegations Register on its website but, unlike many Councils, there
is no further list of responsible officers at director or other levels or the related committees for the various items. The ESC delegation arrangements are also at
variance with many Councils who often retain and/or assert an active role in
reviewing operational reports and decision-making in relation to what they consider
are important projects of interest to the community.


All Councils in NSW are required to keep an up-to-date Register of Delegations to
provide information about to whom Councillors have entrusted the decision making.
ABE has reviewed NSW Council Delegation Registers including Bega Valley,
Queanbeyan-Palerang, Orange and Newcastle which indicate that better practice
should include:  
a) significant aspects of delegations being kept at either Councillors’ or Councillor
appointed committees’ level ;
b) Councillors’ delegations being reviewed and updated several times during the
term of a Council, preferably annually; and
c) Registers of Delegations available on the Councils’ websites should list all areas
delegated to the general manager and show how the GM sub-delegates these
delegations to other Council staff.  They should demonstrate transparency, be up to
date and be easily accessible, written in plain English so as to be understood by
the community.

A relevant model of good practice for future Councillors to consider is Bega Shire
Council’s Register of Delegations. This gives a brief plain English summary of the
areas delegated and provides a clear description of how the GM’s delegations are
then shared with staff. This makes it simple for the public to understand who is
responsible for making a decision on a particular matter, and the
line of command, should a decision need to be clarified.


Improving Council’s performance in relation to the above issues can best be
obtained by electing Councillors committed to improving current practice. ESC re-
joining the NSW Local Government Association would give Council access to a
range of professional analysis and advisory services to improve organisational
performance.

ABE recommends the incoming Council commission an external local government consultant, answering directly to the Councillors, to undertake a review of its strategic environment and a range of Council practices to, address such key issues as:

  • the need to update Council’s planning with a comprehensive, shire-wide strategic plan to address sustainable development;
  • providing ‘best practice’ advice to Councillors on how decisions should be made and what support they should expect from Council staff;
  • applying a consistent definition and protocol around using ‘commercial in confidence’ and ‘legal privilege’ firewalls with a view to reducing this practice, including in relation to Code of Conduct complaints;
  • how to encourage and resource public engagement in decision-making, using advisory committees and wide distribution of information on important decisions, with dedicated staff to facilitate processes recognising the needs of marginalised groups like the elderly, the isolated and socially disadvantaged;
  • improving the delegations register, listing responsible officers;
  • improved reporting to Councillors and the community on delegated decisions, to recognise the community’s right to know; and
  • developing a more flexible approach to managing delegations and Councillors asserting their rights to information and decision making in areas that are most likely to improve Council’s performance and reputation.

Eurobodalla Shire is a great place, rich in people of talent and goodwill and blessed with natural assets. ABE wants to see a Council that recognises this and encourages a culture of best practice to plan for a sustainable future and build public confidence in and support for Council.

Bernie O’Neil
Co-convenor
A Better Eurobodalla
abettereurobodalla.org

ABE Presentation to Council 22nd June 2021

This is a copy of the ABE paper submitted for presentation to the Eurobodalla Shire Council Public Forum Session on Tuesday 22nd June 2021

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to address Council and the community regarding Notice of Motion 21/002, dealing with an application for a gate permit on Coopers Island Road.

I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. ABE expects that before governments, at any level, make decisions that will impact their communities, they will undertake broad and meaningful consultation, listen to and share expert advice, and proceed using a transparent decision-making process so that the community understands who makes decisions, when and why.

ABE has applied these principles to the issue of the gate permit for Coopers Island Road, which leads it to support Councillor Constable’s Notice of Motion, which calls on Council to:

1. Refuse to issue a public gate permit under s128 of the Roads Act 1993 (NSW) to the owner of the land adjoining Coopers Island Road;

2. Direct the adjoining landowner to remove the gate that is currently erected across Coopers Island Road at that location within 21 days of this resolution; 

3. Following removal of the gate, issue an order under s124 of the Local Government Act 1993 (NSW) requiring the adjoining landowner to fence their land along the length of Coopers Island Road to the Princes Highway road reserve, on the basis that it is satisfied that public safety renders it necessary that the land adjoining Coopers Island Road is fenced; and 

4. Contribute 50% of the cost of the fencing as a one-off contribution.

ABE presented to Council at Public Access session on the 4th May regarding alienation of public assets, citing examples of the premature closure and leasing of the Batemans Bay Community Centre, the closure of its Visitor Information Centres and the illegal gate on Coopers Island Road.

ABE has indicated that the extended delay in taking the regulatory action required under law regarding the illegal gate on Coopers Island Road was problematic. It had fuelled community unease and speculation that Council’s lack of action was the result of ongoing negotiations for the purchase of the public road by the adjoining landowner. 

This public unease proved to be well-founded, as at the 8 June meeting Council was presented with an option to sell Coopers Island Road to the adjoining landholder, or to retain the road in public ownership. ABE supported retention of the road as a public asset, indicating that the Coopers Island precedent could have significant implications for many other public roads and assets throughout the Eurobodalla Shire, as well as public liability implications for Council. It would also have had significant negative impacts across many in the community who have used the site for decades. In particular, Council should have recognised the long-term Aboriginal connection to Coopers Island, including local Aboriginal families who have cultural fishing links to the site going back for many generations. 

ABE noted that that the retention of the illegal gate on Coopers Island reflected poor administrative practice, lack of transparency and meaningful consultation, and was at odds with informed advice regarding effective post-disaster community recovery practices. 

While ABE endorses Council’s decision taken on 8 June to retain Coopers Island Road in public ownership, we note that the formal motion embodying this decision only emerged during the meeting process, and was not contained in the agenda papers circulated for public exhibition and consideration. This was poor administrative practice causing confusion among Councillors and the community about the implications of what was being proposed.

Where responsibilities are delegated from Councillors to officials and a matter is incorrectly or inappropriately handled, it is right that Council should rescind that delegation and make a decision. 

Today’s notice of motion reveals that, on reflection, an alternative approach to the fencing and gate issue has emerged that addresses the disquiet in the community about the retention of a gate.

ABE believes that Councillor Constable’s notice of motion represents an opportunity to clarify and consolidate the Council decision taken on 8 June to retain public ownership of Coopers Island Road. Further, it addresses potential public safety and public liability concerns that could arise from the formal decision endorsed by Council on 8 June.

ABE requests that it should be noted that a decision to support 50% of the cost of the fencing as a one-off contribution reflects that a Council official’s verbal advice to the landholder concerning the erection of the gate was incorrect.

This notice of motion is another opportunity for elected Councillors to prove their commitment both to the community and to good public administration. ABE therefore urges Councillors to support it.

Thank you for your attention.

Bernie O’Neil

Co-convenor

A Better Eurobodalla

ABE Presentation to Council 8th June 2021

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to address Council and the community this morning on Item GMR21/029, dealing with the sale of Coopers Island Road to the adjoining landholder.

I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. ABE expects that before governments, at any level, make decisions that will impact their communities, they will undertake broad and meaningful consultation, listen to and share expert advice, and proceed using a transparent decision-making process so that the community understands who makes decisions, when and why. 

ABE has applied these principles to the issue of the possible sale of Coopers Island Road, which leads it to strongly support Option 2 that Council should not sell Coopers Island Road, and instead maintain the road as a public asset, with the illegal gate removed and appropriate signage erected on-site. 

ABE presented to Council at Public Access session on the 4 May on alienation of public assets, citing examples of the premature closure and leasing of the Batemans Bay Community Centre, the closure of its Visitor Information Centres and the illegal gate on Coopers Island Road.

That presentation indicated that the extended delay in taking any regulatory action regarding the illegal gate on Coopers Island Road had fuelled community unease and speculation that Council’s lack of action was the result of ongoing negotiations for the purchase of the public road by the adjoining landowner. Today’s Council paper unfortunately confirms that this speculation was justified.

ABE notes that Council has claimed that, despite being aware of the illegal gate in October 2019, compliance was not pursued because of a focus on “bushfires and flood repairs”. This is curious reasoning, given that extensive fires were already occurring in northern NSW in October with the fires forecast to spread south. It would be in the community and wider public safety interest that an illegal gate be removed from a public road. This would facilitate ready access to a potential local watering point for use by any fire fighting units should the need arise in the approaching fire season. An illegal gate could have literally had “life or death” consequences for emergency responders under bushfire conditions.

ABE noted in its 4 May presentation that sale of Coopers Island Road would remove public access to this valuable community asset and have significant implications for many other public roads and assets throughout the Eurobodalla Shire. ABE has reviewed the information provided in today’s agenda papers, and sees no cogent reason to amend its position. ABE notes:

  • The Eurobodalla community have been significantly impacted by natural disasters of bushfire, drought and flooding, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that Council’s community service and support responsibilities are now more important than ever. Council has been aware of public concern about the road for nearly two years, with a significant public petition urging Council not to sell the road being formally received at today’s meeting. Any move to sell Cooper’s Island Road would be at odds with the “community led” recovery approach which Council professes to be at the core of its own Eurobodalla Bushfire Recovery Action Plan.  
  • Expert advice tells us that strong community connections are a key to recovering from disasters such as the bushfires and COVID-19. The sale and public alienation of a significant public asset such as Coopers Road will directly impact a wide range of community groups and individuals who have used the site for decades. It will also cast a shadow over the security of other similar community assets throughout the Eurobodalla Shire, generating ongoing community concerns and unease.
  • Council needs to recognise the long-term Aboriginal connection to Coopers Island, including local Aboriginal families who have cultural fishing links to the site going back for many generations. If Council has sought any advice on this issue from its own Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Committee, there is no mention of this group in today’s agenda papers. If this is the case, why not? 
  • The owner of the adjoining land made a commercial decision in 2017 purchase the block “as is”, with existing public use and access rights.  This owner is now raising ‘biosecurity” concerns as a reason for taking over the road. Today’s agenda papers do not disclose any evidence that the owner actually has a valid biosecurity management plan in place or that they have fulfilled requirements of the relevant Act, including public signage. The community should not be expected to lose its existing use rights to such a valuable public asset in order to ameliorate an imperfect commercial decision made by a private entity under a smokescreen of unverified biosecurity concerns. 
  • ABE also draws to Council’s attention advice it received on 31 May 2021 regarding public access to Crown Waterways over Council owned or Crown Roads which states:

‘Please be advised that the Commissioner is of the view that, as a matter of principle, it is of the utmost importance to retain public access to Crown Waterways over Council owned or Crown Roads, and that those roads should not be privatised to exclude that public access’.

ABE supports this advice from the Office of the NSW Crown Lands Commissioner.

The current situation reflects poor administrative practice, lack of transparency and meaningful consultation, and is at odds with informed advice regarding effective post-disaster community recovery practices. 

As a consequence, ABE strongly supports Option 2 that Council should not sell Coopers Island Road, and instead maintain the road as a public asset, with the illegal gate removed and appropriate signage erected on-site to facilitate ongoing public access to this valuable public asset. This is an opportunity for elected Councillors to prove their commitment both to the community and to good public administration.

Thank you for your attention.

Bernie O’Neil

ABE Presentation to Council 1st June 2021

This is a copy of the ABE paper accepted for presentation to the Eurobodalla Shire Council Public Access Session on Tuesday 1st June 2021

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 which has given us the opportunity to talk to the
community about what is important to them.

This presentation focuses on the issue of disaster preparedness and recovery
and the role of the community in these activities after the 2019-2020
bushfires.

Council’s response to the impacts of the “black summer” bushfires is outlined
in the Eurobodalla Bushfire Recovery Action Plan April 2020. The Plan states
that Eurobodalla recovery actions should be consistent with the NSW
Recovery Plan, which promotes a community–led recovery approach as
outlined in the following statement :.
Supporting self-help and strengthening the resources, capacity and resiliency
already present within individuals and communities are the keys to successful
recovery. Empowering communities to create their own solutions can improve
overall social cohesion, and this is critical to sustainable recovery
outcomes
”(NSW Recovery Plan, page 14).

With this in mind, it is notable that the Eurobodalla Local Recovery Action
Committee does not include any community members, instead consisting of
16 members drawn exclusively from government agencies, businesses and
Council staff.

The NSW Recovery Plan also states that a Local Recovery Action Committee
can establish Local Community Consultation Groups to enable members of
the community, including people affected by the event and representatives
from local organisations, to provide input to the recovery process. However,
the Eurobodalla Recovery Plan makes no mention of any Community
Consultation Groups. Indeed, the word “consultation” occurs only once in the
Eurobodalla Plan, in relation to business. In addition, the words “community
input
” and “partnership” are also absent from the Eurobodalla Recovery Plan.
How can the Eurobodalla community have a direct voice in the recovery
process within such a structure?

The neighbouring Shoalhaven and Bega Valley areas were also badly
impacted by the 2019-20 fires and have developed their own recovery plans.
In contrast to the Eurobodalla, the Shoalhaven Recovery Action Plan
emphasises “community input”, stating that: “Community input is the best way
to inform Council and is the foundation of the Recovery Committee
information flow.
” In fact, the term “community input” is mentioned 4 times in
the Shoalhaven Recovery Action Plan, but nowhere in the Eurobodalla Plan.
Shoalhaven Council has also invited community members to join a working
group to develop a Community-led Resilience Plan for the Shoalhaven, noting
that “Community-led planning enables local residents to create stronger, more vibrant and resilient communities, better able to respond to local challenges
and opportunities.

In October 2020 the Shoalhaven Community Recovery Into Resilience Project
(RRP) was initiated. This is Shoalhaven Council’s organizational response to
the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements and the NSW
Independent Inquiry into the 2020 Bushfires
. It also identifies community-led
resilience as the foundation of a communities’ preparation for, response to,
and recovery from, disasters and environmental challenges.

Through the Shoalhaven Community RRP, Council aims to develop
partnerships with research and commercial providers to grow community
resilience. Shoalhaven Council plans to coordinate the growth of community-
led resilience and establish ‘Information Hubs’ by upgrading power and
communication reliability of facilities across the Shoalhaven. The plan is being
driven by Shoalhaven Council’s use of $2 million in BLER (Bushfire Local Economic Recovery ) funding to improve the resilience of power and communications infrastructure by the development of micro-grids in place of existing and fire-damaged power infrastructure, and delivering back-up communication connectivity through satellite digital communication.

The Bega Valley Local Recovery Action Plan is also focussed on community-
led recovery, and features a Communications and Community Engagement
Sub-committee as part of the Local Recovery Committee. This subcommittee
developed the Bega Valley Together (BVT) framework aimed at “creating a go
to” space and network for bushfire recovery, news, information and
community support. BVT is our commitment to community-led recovery; to
inform, assist, support and empower residents.
” Bega Valley ran town-hall-
style community meetings in all impacted localities, with meetings streamed
live online. This helped community members to engage on projects of high
community value and interest such as community hall rebuilds and the
greenshoots program to revegetate environmentally significant areas.
Opportunities for collaborative projects were identified and supported, and
Bega Valley Council staff were upskilled in community engagement and
collaboration within a recovery context. These projects were given practical
support by Bega Valley Council using $3 million in BLER funding to rebuild
and retrofit community halls in Kiah, Wandella and Tumbarumba impacted by
the Black Summer bushfires.

In contrast to these community-led and supported BLER projects, Eurobodalla
Council has chosen to allocate $5.25 million of BLER funding to a 10 year old
walking trail concept plan which has never been formally endorsed by
Council, and about which there has been no public consultation. This large
allocation ignores telecommunication weaknesses in the Eurobodalla (e.g.
South Durras) and significant emergency transportation and communication
issues (e.g. Araluen Road). While Shoalhaven and Bega Valley are allocating
their resources into building back better to enhance resilience after the fires,
Eurobodalla continues with a “Business As Usual” tourism development.

In addition, Bega Valley Shire has community involvement embedded in its
Disaster Relief Fund, established by means of an MOU in partnership with the
local community group Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast (SJA). The Bega Fund has tax deductibility status, and is managed by a Committee
co-chaired by Council and SJA. The management committee consists of 3
SJA representatives, 3 Bega Valley Council reps and 2 independent
community reps. This community-focussed management committee contrasts
with the Eurobodalla Shire Council Disaster Relief Fund, which is run in-house
by Council and managed by a committee composed of the Mayor, Deputy
Mayor, General Manager and 2 community representatives.

Another area of contrast between the recovery practices of this council and
our neighbouring councils is in the treatment of development fees for people
rebuilding their homes destroyed by the fires. Both Shoalhaven and Bega
Valley waive all Council development application fees, whereas Eurobodalla
Council requires applicants to pay their fees in full, after which they are
eligible for a rebate of “up to S1,000”, leaving many of these applicants
significantly out of pocket by thousands of dollars.

Today’s presentation by ABE has outlined several community-led approaches
that are being employed by neighbouring councils to facilitate community
engagement in developing and implementing disaster recovery and resilience
solutions. These are helping to deliver tangible community benefits in the
recovery process for our neighbouring shires. They are readily adaptable to
the Eurobodalla, and could be applied in our Shire to ensure that our disaster
preparedness and local recovery outcomes truly reflect the needs of our
community.

Thank you for your attention.
Dr Brett Stevenson
Co-Convenor ABE

ABE Presentation to Council 4/5/21

(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

Co-Convenor

A Better Eurobodalla

ABE Appearance at NSW Public Accountability Committee Inquiry

ABE appeared at the Public Accountability Committee (PAC) Inquiry into the Integrity, Efficacy and Value for Money of NSW Government Grant Programs on Monday 26th April 2021. A copy of our opening statement is provided below, and a link to our full submission to the Inquiry can be found at the conclusion of the statement.

ABE Opening Statement for PAC Inquiry Hearing

Good Afternoon Public Accountability Committee Members,

A Better Eurobodalla (ABE) is a community forum dedicated to achieving open and inclusive government in the Eurobodalla region. ABE would like to express thanks to the Committee for the opportunity to appear today, and hope that our information and experiences can contribute to better governance for both the Eurobodalla Shire and the wider NSW community.

Based on ABE’s experience, significant deficiencies currently exist in both the allocation and administration of grant funding programs in NSW, as exemplified in the two Eurobodalla grant projects outlined in ABE’s submission. Both of these projects illustrate the need for decision-making to take into account opportunity costs, which are the community benefits foregone that could have been realised by options not chosen. For example, other better targeted or more effective BLER projects being starved of funding because scarce funds were allocated to a proposal which did not meet the BLER criteria.

ABE is broadly supportive of the recommendations made in the First Report of the Inquiry into Integrity, Efficacy and Value for Money of NSW Government Grant Programs, and has included some suggestions which could be made to improve the way in which regional resources are allocated and spent. We consider that the administration and auditing functions of the Office of Local Government is a key issue to be addressed and therefore endorse Inquiry Recommendations 10 and 15.

In essence, the key issues from ABE’s perspective are that we face an unholy trinity of :

  1. grants programs driven by political considerations, i.e. pork barrelling, which disburse funds to;
  2. a shire Council operating in a culture of secrecy which is out of touch with its community;
  3. while the Office of Local Government does not fulfil its statutory role of effective review and oversight thereby sheltering the Council from any reasonable scrutiny by the community.

All of these three aspects affect the integrity, efficacy and value for money of NSW government grant programs for the Eurobodalla community, so changes need to be made across all three aspects for any real improvement to occur.

We welcome the opportunity to expand upon or clarify issues raised in our submission, and hope that the Inquiry process can resolve some of the contradictory information provided to ABE by different NSW government entities.

Thank you.

ABE Presentation to Council 20/4/21

(This is a copy of the ABE presentation submitted to Eurobodalla Council for the Public Access session of 20th April 2021.)

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.

ABE has already presented to Council on the need for genuine community consultation, as well as the importance of obtaining and taking account of relevant expert advice before making decisions. This presentation focuses on two key principles that ABE believes are important for inclusive and accountable government – transparency and open communication.

ABE has reviewed Council documents relating to these important aspects of good governance, the most relevant being Eurobodalla Shire Council’s Agency Information Guide (2019) which is a requirement under the Government Information (Public Access) Act (2009). It outlines how Council will engage with the public and how the public can participate in Council functions, stating that: ‘We want to help create an engaged community that works together to achieve common goals, where thoughts and ideas are valued and where community members are empowered with knowledge and have the opportunity to participate’.

However, ABE’s community engagement is telling us that Council is not living up to these commitments in the (now outdated) Agency Information Guide and in some cases it acts in direct contravention to them. This has given rise to what the community perceives as a culture of secrecy within Council which prevents not only the public, but also community members of Council committees and even councillors, from knowing the detail of how and why decisions are made and by whom.

Our discussions with the community have provided the following examples:

1. Tendering processes

Council’s financial management practices such as tendering processes where ‘commercial-in-confidence’ provisions are routinely used to conceal costs and expenditure from the public, and sometimes councillors.  As ABE noted in an earlier presentation, even the independent Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee of Council established under the Local Government Act to review the risks, controls and finances surrounding major projects is not always provided with sufficient information to allow them properly evaluate Council’s financial decisions. This was demonstrated in relation to the Bateman’s Bay Regional Arts, Aquatic and Leisure Centre where the Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee was not provided with the construction tender and therefore could not advise councillors before they voted to approve the total budget for the project. When councillors sought guidance from the Committee prior to voting on the project, the General Manager advised that the Committee could not have access to the construction tender because it was commercial-in-confidence. This was based on a dubious interpretation of the Local Government Act and despite the fact that members of the Committee are bound by the same strict confidentiality clauses as council staff and councillors. 

Often the outcomes of tender processes are not publicly announced and nor do they always appear on Council’s contract register. When they do, they cannot always be relied upon to be accurate. While it is a mandatory requirement under the GIPA Act that council keep a public register of contracts valued at $150,000 and over, Council has overlooked this requirement on several occasions.This was the case in relation to Council’s multi-million dollar Technology One contract for a corporate business system which commenced in June 2016 with a completion date of September 2018. By the end of September 2020 over $7 million had been spent and the estimated completion date had been pushed back to December 2021 with a final cost of close to $10 million. None of this was recorded on Council’s contract register at the time, so there was much community speculation about how much this whole project was costing ratepayers. It was not until the issue was raised by a Councillor at the end of 2020 that the cost and details of the contract were revealed and the contract register was finally updated.

2. Council meetings

Under the section on public participationin their Agency Information Guide, Council claims to encourage community members toparticipate in the exercise of Council functions and policy formulation by coming to, or watching webcasts of, Council meetings; engaging with Council at Public Access meetings (like this one) and applying for membership of Council committees or addressing committee meetings. 

However, Council’s record in relation to meetings does not meet this standard.  Meetings are held during the day when it is difficult for residents who work to attend. This contrasts with other councils who hold their meetings in the evening, making them accessible to a broader section of the community.  While Eurobodalla Council meetings are webcast, this does not allow community members who cannot attend live meetings to address Council.  Council’s Public Access sessions are also held during the day which limits participation by working members of the community and the story is the same for Council committees.

The frequency of Council meetings has also limited public participation.  Following the disastrous Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 Eurobodalla Council did not meet until 11th February 2020, some 3 weeks after the bushfire disaster was over and nearly 2 months after their last ordinary meeting in early December 2019. In contrast, both neighbouring Shoalhaven and Bega Valley Shires held extraordinary Council meetings in January to deal with the bushfire disaster and returned to their regular schedule of Council meetings much sooner. During the onset of COVID-19 when bushfire recovery issues were still of critical importance, Eurobodalla Council abandoned its meeting schedule for nearly 2 months between 7 April and 26 May 2020 despite having access to technology that would have allowed them to continue meeting remotely. Council has since embraced this technology and Council meetings have been by Zoom link until very recently.  However, Zoom access to Council meetings is complex to organise for most people and does not effectively facilitate community participation. Public Access meetings continue to be via Zoom for no apparent reason. In addition, the frequency of Public Access sessions has been reduced from fortnightly to monthly and they are no longer broadcast and available to the broader community. This does not live up to Council’s statements in their Agency Information Guide about encouraging community participation.

3. Confidentiality provisions

Council’s Agency Information Guide statesthat ‘elected councillors represent the interests of residents and ratepayers. They provide community leadership and guidance [and] channel communication between the community and Council’. However, in practice, the application of confidentiality clauses across a broad range of council business often prevents elected representatives from consulting their constituents on important matters that will affect them.  

These same confidentiality provisions are also applied to Council advisory committees whose members are unable to share the most basic information with the communities they represent without the threat of legal action. A key function of advisory committees is for information regarding Council matters to be made available for public scrutiny, consideration and comment. The current confidentiality arrangements imposed on committee members by Council effectively prevents any information about related Council business being shared with the broader community.

A number of other instances where Council has failed to communicate openly and operate transparently were raised by the community. These include the extended time that Council’s DA tracker was offline during 2019 which prevented the community from knowing what planning matters were before Council and the process of leasing the Bateman’s Bay Community Centre.

So ABE believes it is time that Council reviews the way it operates with regard to its own policies and guidelines if it genuinely wants to engage the community and encourage them to participate in Council business.

Bernie O’Neil

Co-Convenor

A Better Eurobodalla

ABE Presentation to Council 2/3/21

Note: ABE was the sole presenter to Public Access on 2/3/21. ABE submitted this presentation to Council at 10:12 AM on Monday 1st March, yet were only advised that our presentation was accepted to go ahead and provided with a Zoom link at 8:49 AM on Tuesday morning, 26 minutes before the start of the Zoom session. Councillors Brown, Thomson and Tait, as well as Mayor Innes, all failed to attend this Public Access session without any explanation being tendered.

A Better Eurobodalla (ABE) presentation to the Eurobodalla Shire Council Public Access session on Tuesday 2 March 2021

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.

ABE has already presented to Council on the need for sound community consultation. This presentation focuses on the related need to obtain and take account of relevant expert advice before making decisions. 

Eurobodalla Shire Council expends considerable funds on obtaining expert advice and, in addition, receives expert advice from various other Government authorities as part of its normal business.

ABE has examined recent Council budget documentation for consultancy information. We found no primary evidence beyond a couple of summary items indicating, in the Council’s December 2020 report, that it spent nearly $1.5 million in the previous quarter on expert advice. Given its size and critical role in decision-making, ratepayers and residents need to see primary evidence to confirm that such advice:

  • meets recognised professional standards;
  • informs the making of evidence based, best practice decisions and is value for money; and
  • is disclosed to the community in an accessible and timely manner including how the advice influences a decision or action by Council.

For this presentation, ABE has researched three areas of Council business where there is independent evidence relating to expert advice and to Council’s performance and accountability. 

Example 1. Obtaining expert advice regarding the construction tender for the Batemans Bay Regional Aquatic Arts and Leisure Centre (hereafter referred to as the Leisure Centre).

At its meeting of 28 July 2020, Councillors wanted to seek advice from Council’s Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee (ARIC) before voting to approve the construction tender and allocate the total budget for the Leisure Centre development.

As background, ARIC is constituted to provide specific expert advice to Council and must (among other things) keep under review the following aspects of the Council’s operations:

  • Compliance
  • Risk management and
  • Financial management

Councillors were concerned that:

  • they were about to endorse expenditure of approximately $69 million to a project without any professional financial advice.
  • the community were unaware of the total cost, and
  • there was no updated business case to inform their decision

However, the General Manager informed Councillors that the Audit Committee could not have access to the tender document for construction of the facility or the total budget amount because it was ‘commercial in confidence’.

Contrary to this advice, the Model Code of Conduct, Council’s Code and ARIC’s terms of Reference, the Audit Committee can, ‘access confidential information that [they] have been authorised to access for the purpose of performing [their] official duties’ (page 5 of the Model Code of Conduct – Guide for Council Committee Members & Delegates).

To clarify this the NSW Office of Local Government was contacted and confirmed in a telephone conversation of 18 Dec 2020 that the Audit Committee canhave access to confidential and ‘commercial in confidence’ information. 

As a result of the General Manager’s advice to Council, the Audit Committee were denied access to vital information necessary to monitor and assess the level of risk and financial management of the project. As ARIC has at least one financially qualified member and is permitted to ‘obtain legal or other professional advice considered necessary to meet its responsibilities’ it would have been the obvious source of expert advice. (ESC-ARIC Terms of Reference).

Without this, Councillors’ subsequent approval of the tender and budget for this multi-million dollar development was without the appropriate professional expert advice.

Example 2. ESC staff advice to Councillors re Capital Expenditure Review for BBRAALC (Leisure Centre)

Also, at the 28 July 2020 meeting, Councillors were asked to endorse the construction tender and total budget for the Leisure Centre, and a report was provided listing all matters that needed to be considered prior to making a decision.

Under the heading “Financial” the following advice to Councillors was provided:

‘The Office of Local Government (OLG) has assessed Eurobodalla Shire Council’s review for compliance with OLG Capital Expenditure Guidelines (Guidelines), issued under section23A of the Local Government Act 1993. The Guidelines seek to ensure that a council’s review of a proposed capital expenditure project is consistent and transparent, that the merits of capital projects can be compared, and that resource allocation can be made on an informed basis by the council. OLG’s assessment concluded that Council’s review meets the relevant criteria of the Guidelines.’ 

It was later revealed (in response to a Government Information Public Access (GIPA) request) that council staff were selective in what they disclosed to Councillors from the OLG’s correspondence,

as the OLG advice goes on to say:

‘OLG notes that, factoring in all costs, the built facility is projected to operate at a loss for the first 10 years of operation. Council must be satisfied of the community demand for the facility, as proposed, and the ability to subsidise the facility from the General Fund.

Council should also consider the potential adverse effect of the current COVID-19 pandemic on the projected revenue of both the built facility and Council.

While Council has generally satisfied the OLG’s capital Expenditure criteria, it is important to note that this response should not be construed as an endorsement or approval of Council’s proposal.’ (Attached)

By omitting the above, Councillors would have assumed that the OLG had endorsed the project – that all risk issues had been considered and financial management had been deemed appropriate and adequate.

Example 3. NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) expert advice on bushfire risk management

This has important implications for public safety, public and private property, public liability as well as the safety of both agency and RFS volunteer fire fighters. Unfortunately, Council ignored key recommendations from the RFS throughout the development of the Rural Lands Planning Proposal. The critical importance of this issue has been graphically highlighted by the Eurobodalla’s disastrous experience in the 2019/20 fire season. RFS recommendations which were ignored include:

i) The RFS requested that Council carry out a Strategic Bushfire Assessment for the proposal, as per the requirements for Planning for Bushfire Protection but this was not carried out.

ii) The RFS identified concerns with the use of open land use tables in high-risk bushfire prone rural lands as adopted in the Planning Proposal, yet this was ignored. This was of particular concern to the RFS, as it opened the way for Special Fire Protection Place (SFPP) activities such as Health Services Facilities, Child Care Centres, and Seniors Housing, to be located in these hazardous areas. These uses require large scale Asset Protection Zones and road infrastructure, potentially impacting downstream water quality critical for oyster growing and commercial and recreational fishing. 

iii) The RFS requested that the results from the draft Bush Fire Prone Land Mapping carried out by Council in 2016 be used to inform the Planning Proposal but this mapping was not finalised before the Planning proposal was formally adopted, and this important additional data was not incorporated into the planning process.

NSW government agencies collective experience of ESC’s refusal to heed expert technical advice is encapsulated in this quote from RFS correspondence with Council after three years of engagement on the proposal:

The NSW RFS provided detailed comments, attended meetings and joint site inspections with Council and other agencies in order to discuss the contents of the Planning Proposal and further explain our concerns. Notwithstanding, the Planning Proposal appears largely unchanged from the previous versions and has not addressed the specific concerns identified by the NSW RFS nor undertaken a strategic bush fire study’.

In summary, it is vital that Councillors are provided with accurate, detailed and timely expert advice in order to make better decisions; and for this advice to be made available to the community.

Bernie O’Neil

Co-convenor

A Better Eurobodalla