Image for Why has Democracy been Suspended in Ross?

Australia is a democratic nation, where we value the right to vote, and celebrate the carnival of an election.

After moving to Ross in 2015, and approaching elected Councillors with matters of concern, I kept being told to contact the Ross Local District Committee.

This became such a chorus, I wondered why those elected and paid to represent would send me off to a committee of unelected members.

Ross once had a local Council, with Councillors being voted in, and out.

Why do serving Councillors now need a committee of unelected members in Ross?

AN AMALGAMATION SOLUTION

In 1993 the old Ross Council was merged into the larger Northern Midlands Council, with the Council Chambers located in Longford, in the far north of the municipality, a long drive from Ross.

Soon after it was formed and launched, the Northern Midlands Council used a provision in the Local Government Act to form a Special Committee of Council for the town, called the Ross Local District Committee.

There are six other similar committees in the Northern Midlands. [1]

Every two years nominations are called for the Ross Committee, and if there are too many applicants, Council officers decide who will be on the committee, and who will not.

There is no election held for membership of the Ross Committee.

Last year there were 12 nominations for ten positions, and Council officers selected which ten would be on the Ross Committee.

The Council officer selection was then ratified at a meeting of the elected Councillors.

I offered to nominate for the Ross Committee, if an election were held, but that didn’t happen.

I was told by Mayor David Downie that elections were not held for the committee, because they would be too expensive to run.

So democracy is suspended because of the cost?

This is relevant, because the Ross Committee is like a shadow of the old Ross Council, and has become like a mini-Council of unelected Council officer selected members.

Council officers manage the running of the Ross Committee, where members work under the same laws as elected Councillors.

How the Ross Committee functions can be seen on page 100 of the Council Agenda attachments of 18 May 2015, with a Memorandum of Understanding. [2]

A shorter and earlier Memorandum of Understanding can be seen on page 119, which appears more community oriented, with the 2015 document shifting more toward planning and governance matters.

It is surprising that the Memorandum of Understanding cannot be found in the main pages of the Council website, but is hidden away in the attachments of a Council agenda from some years ago.

Is the Memorandum of Understanding for the eyes of the selected town committee members only?

Why the secrecy?

An elected Councillor is appointed to attend meetings as an adviser only, and cannot participate in the proceedings ~ “The Councillor representative is an advisory role only and the Councillor is not entitled to move or vote on any decisions made by the committee.” [2]

The Ross Committee has a role to liaise with the community, but not being elected by the community, there is not the same connection as with elected Councillors.

The attention of committee members may therefore be more directed toward Council officers, who have the role of selecting and managing the committee, than to the Ross community.

Lacking a mandate from the Ross community, the member mandate may be more about Council administration.

The Northern Midlands Council has essentially established another level of government, where unelected members lack power, but have a sense of authority.

Is the creation of an unelected level of governance right and appropriate in a democratic nation?

I began wondering if I was living under a red flag.

COMMUNITY CONSULTATION

The situation takes a step further when it comes to Community Consultation.

There are many examples where the Ross Committee is used for “community consultation”, without presenting the matter to the Ross Community, a matter that I will return to.

At present the Tasmanian Government is working on a new state-wide planning scheme, and this involves community consultation, where anyone interested has been able to lodge an opinion, and appear at a hearing.

The Interim Planning Scheme for the Northern Midlands Council was subject to similar community consultation.

Development applications are frequently advertised for public comment, and the representor has a right to appeal the decision.

Developers and land owners also have a right in law to appeal a Council decision that they do not agree with.

The Memorandum of Understanding was also the subject of “community consultation”, if that is what it can be described as.

The way this “community consultation” happened can be seen on page 50 of the Council meeting Agenda for 18 May 2015 ~ “All 7 committees have been asked for their contribution and suggested amendments to the MOUs at their most recent AGMs.” [3]

If the town committees are intended to represent the town communities, why wouldn’t the primary guiding document be put on public exhibition for general comment and improvement?

This disregard for the community is another element of democracy being snatched away, with the governance of Northern Midlands towns focused on a few people.

The Northern Midlands Council runs with an assumption that the Ross Committee talks to the people of Ross, and therefore, “community consultation” only needs to include members of the Ross Committee.

Committee members may talk to people they know, but they do not serve with a mandate from the community, as would be given through an election, and do not have that form of connection with the community.

When the next round of nominations comes around, committee members can quietly nominate to continue on the committee, without having to make a case to anyone, or account for their past performance.

In this secretive environment, there may be a tendency for Council officers to select members who they would prefer to work with.

The Ross Committee does not hold public meetings, or run any form of “community consultation” process.

To refer to any matter presented to the Ross Committee as “community consultation”, is a really long stretch of the imagination.

When it comes to planning and development in Ross, this is a recipe for a train wreck.

Elected Councillors have developed a hands-off approach to Ross, looking to unelected committee members for direction.

This has become an aloofness on the part of both the Council, the elected Councillors and the Ross Committee.

This aloofness leads to a lack of understanding of the needs of Ross, so when it comes to making critical decisions about development in Ross, the plot is all too often lost.

COSTS AND SAVINGS

The annual cost to the ratepayers of the Northern Midlands for the 7 committees in 2015 was $42,578.31, found on page 49 of the Council Agenda for 18 May 2015. [3]

Is this good value for money?

If the Ross Local District Committee did not exist, the people of Ross could form a community association to fight for Ross, and hold an AGM with an election.

Ross would then have democracy at the grass roots.

The elected association committee members would then have a mandate from community members of the association, and if this happened in every town, there would be no cost to the ratepaying public.

The Council saves money by not training the committee members ~ “The members of the local district committees do not receive any formal training, in particular in respect to the Local Government (Meeting Procedures) Regulations 2005. It has been identified that binding the committees to legislation, without providing formal training places an unrealistic expectation on the committee. On this basis, the revised MOU outlines the specific requirements for the meetings, to avoid confusion.” [3]

The governance of the town committees is therefore tighter, to avoid the cost of training.

In the list of costs is the Christmas function ~ $2,215.00. [3]

Ratepayer funded entertainment costs would not be needed, if the towns of the Northern Midlands ran their own self-reliant democratic associations.

The Northern Midlands Council saves money on consultation, by limiting “community consultation” to the few members of the town committees.

This ongoing practice turns community consultation into a travesty.

Yet another way to sweep democracy aside, and give a heightened sense of importance to the few unelected members of the town committees.

The Council also saves money by not running elections for the town committees.

Is this the thin edge of the wedge toward authoritarian government?

ADVANTAGES

Apparent advantages of using the Special Committee of Council system in town governance and planning, is being able to side-step “community consultation”, by presenting a matter to the few unelected members of the town committee, and labelling that as consultation with the community.

This narrow focus can lead to poor planning, with important planning and development matters overlooked, or not dealt with.

As town committee members are selected by Council officers, their allegiance may be more to the Council than their community, leading to outcomes that are preferred by the Council, rather than decisions that benefit the community, or express the wishes of residents.

By directing ratepayers to the town committees, Council time is not absorbed in pesky approaches from ratepayers.

Unpaid town committee members can receive Council matters, and then tell the Council what they think about it, if they remember to do so.

DISADVANTAGES

Is there potential for corruption with Council officers selecting who will serve on a town committee?

The Northern Midlands Council is taking a great risk with this practice of side-stepping democracy.

With a narrow focus between Council officers and a town committee, there is a recipe for bad planning outcomes.

By Council taking a hands-off approach and leaving key town planning matters to an unelected town committee, rather than communicate with the whole community, clumsy outcomes can result, which can lead to the waste of public money and less than acceptable planning and development results.

There is a great risk of potentially good outcomes being corrupted by this lack of democratic scrutiny.

DISENFRANCHISED

There is currently a vacancy on the Ross Committee, and the Council is calling for nominations. [1]

I have offered to nominate, if an election is held, so that I would then have a mandate from the community to serve on the Ross Committee, if that’s what people wanted.

I am willing to have a crack at democracy in Ross.

I may not win a place on the committee, but there would be a debate.

And I would get to know the good people of Ross a little better.

And if I were elected, I would have a mandate from the community to serve their interests.

I would have to stay on my toes, if I wanted their vote in the next election.

That is how democracy should work.

Writing to General Manager Des Jennings with this suggestion, a reply returns ~ “Council will not be calling a formal election to fill the vacancy on the Ross Local District Committee. Council will follow the process identified in the Memorandum of Understanding with the Committee whereby the vacancy is advertised inviting nominations.”

So am I disenfranchised, not being able to vote for members of the Ross Committee, or being able to stand for a role on the committee and let the people decide who they want on the Committee?

The residents and ratepayers of Ross have been disenfranchised, with democratic elections now replaced by Council officer selections.

And the “Memorandum of Understanding” which describes how the Ross Committee works, is hidden from sight.

I will not be nominating for a place on the Ross Committee, as I will not submit myself to a process where Council officers decide if I am suitable, or if I am not.

How can I know if they have made the right decision?

What am I to think if rejected?

Who would I thank if selected?

Having no mandate from the Ross community, would I be beholden to Council officers?

I wondered how people would feel if Councillors were selected from a list of nominations by State Government officers.

What influence might be brought to bear on those State Government officers to select a particular candidate?

Could the State Government officer selections be trusted?

Could people then have trust in the decisions coming out of a Council, or would they wonder if the State Government held a controlling hand?

Imagine only being able to communicate with elected State politicians, by going through a committee of local Council officers.

How long would such a system last in a robust democratic society?

Yet, this is the form of governace that has emerged in the Northern Midlands.

It is as if a wall of smoke and mirrors has been erected between the people and their elected representatives.

Write to a Northern Midlands Councillor, and be prepared never to get a reply, or be told to go to the town committee of unelected members.

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS ~ OR FAILS TO WORK

The Council frequently sends progress and development matters in Ross to the Ross Committee for their opinion.

The town entrance statements are a prime example.

Rather than go to the residents of Ross to see what they think and ask what they would like, the Council drew up a design and only showed it to the Ross Committee.

The first the people of Ross knew about the entrance statements, was with a formal development application.

Is that how democracy should work?

Following the sale of the council-owned old Ross School in 2014, the Council called for ideas for Ross, from the Ross Committee, rather than reaching out to the residents of Ross and the surrounding region.

The Ross Committee did not reach out to the residents of Ross to see what they would like, or believe was needed.

The Ross Committee proposed buying land in Ross for a new town park.

Did Ross need more land purchased for a new town park?

We, the residents and ratepayers, were not asked.

Is this a problem?

It is, if the wrong planning decisions are being made in Ross.

It is a problem, if public funds are being directed to the wrong projects.

Ross had an excellent property with the old Ross School that featured old trees and a tennis court, which could have served as a town park and community centre, with an art gallery, and an oval for sport and recreation located next to the Town Hall.

The old Ross School was subdivided from the oval and sold off.

It was the money from the sale of the old Ross School that was used to buy more land in Ross to develop as a town park.

The Council still owned land in Ross suitable for a town park, with the old school oval, next to the Town Hall.

Now there is a proposal to use the oval for parking.

Land came available in Ross in the right location for a town car park, and I alerted the Council to this, but the land was then sold.

I don’t believe Council bought that land, as the grass is never mowed.

If members of the Ross Committee were elected, would there be better planning in Ross?

Would the old Ross School have been sold, when it could have been used by the community, and by visitors to Ross, and by artists, history buffs and writers?

Would the Ross Committee have been on their toes about a proper community use for that amazing old gothic design school house?

Would the town park, to cost more than a $1,000,000, now be located on the old School grounds and oval, next to the Town Hall, at a much lesser cost?

There may not be corruption involved, but in the case of a town park for Ross, the process has been sadly corrupted.

THE ROSS BRIDGE

In September 2014 my wife and I addressed the Ross Committee when visiting Ross from Queensland, suggesting that the Ross Bridge should be nominated for National Heritage listing.

This proposal appeared in the Council meeting agenda every month for the following year, so there was plenty of time to budget for a heritage consultant to do the work.

When the month for applications came around in 2015, the item vanished from the Council meeting agenda.

The Council had downed tools and refused to work, claiming no funds were available.

Why would they do that, considering how the Ross Bridge is one of the significant heritage icons in Tasmania, and unique in the World?

My wife and I proceeded with the application to the Australian Government for National Heritage listing, and we are still waiting to hear if it stands a chance of making the list.

It may have improved our case if we could have engaged a heritage consultant.

A heritage consultant was engaged in the preparation of the application for the new town park.

The new town park is not part of the history of Ross, but the Ross Bridge is, attracting visitors and contributing to the tourist economy of Ross and Tasmania.

How could the Council find money for a new town park, but not bother with applying for the Ross Bridge to be placed on the National Heritage List?

Even matters coming out of the Ross Committee get pushed aside, as with the Ross Bridge, if the Council doesn’t want it.

Was the new town park a proposal from the Ross Committee, or a suggestion from Council bounced back from the Ross Committee, like the entrance statements for Ross?

WHAT CAN HAPPEN?

I fear for the future of Ross, that its heritage values will be degraded through a topsy turvy planning process, and a bizarrely narrow definition of “community consultation”.

I fear commerce is being harmed by the current approach to governance and planning.

Earlier articles, listed below, have explored the planning problems in Ross.

When I searched for the root cause of these planning problems, the trail led to the Ross Local District Committee, and the way Council pursues planning and development in Ross.

An application to buy Crown Land in Ross presents an example of how the system works, or fails to work.

A couple moved to Ross in 2015 and later purchased land on both sides of an old Crown Land road reserve.

There has never been a road made on this stretch of Crown Land, and all of the once planned street is used by farmers.

There is no fence along the Crown Land between the couple’s properties, with the land being open as if it is one large paddock, and has been that way for many decades.

The couple applied to Crown Land Services to buy the unused Crown Land between their properties, with the application costing just under $500.

Crown Land Services sent the application to the Northern Midlands Council for their views on the sale of this unused section of Crown land, and to find out if there was any plan for a road there.

The Council officers had no problem with the application, ticking every box in favour of sale.

The matter was brought to the Council meeting of 23 January 2017, where the Councillors had the option of pursuing “community consultation”.

The Councillors chose to send the matter to the Ross Committee, as their chosen form of “community consultation”.

When presented to the Ross Committee on 1 February, the properties had been given the wrong addresses, and committee members expressed concern about where the road reserve in question was located.

In the minutes we can read ~ “Observation made the subject property is unclear as map provided indicates two blocks are both numbered 41 Bridge Street, Ross.” [4]

Erring on the side of caution and lacking any explanation, the committee recommended that the road reserve not be sold.

Normally, the views of the Ross Committee would go to the next Council meeting of 20 February, but this did not happen, as the committee members were so unhappy with the minutes taken by a Council officer, and the minutes had to be changed so much, that the minutes had to be brought back to the Ross Committee to be ratified on 1 March.

The Ross Committee recommendation eventually made it to the Council meeting of 20 March, where the Councillors simply followed the cautious response from the Ross Committee, despite the expressed confusion and wrong addresses, and recommended to Crown Land Services that the land not be sold, but offered no explanation for their decision.

Crown Land Services followed the Council reply and declined to sell the road reserve cutting through the couple’s land.

In this process of determining a decision, the couple were not contacted by the Council to explain their reasons for purchase, and nor were they contacted by the Ross Committee.

If proper community consultation had been pursued, the residents of Ross could have had their say on the matter.

Is this the proper way to deal with a form of planning application from Crown Land Services?

How can planning and development in Ross hope to progress, when planning is dealt with in this way?

The couple could accept a fair decision, properly dealt with, and the decision explained.

To be told “No” for no explained reason on the basis of the views of a few unelected committee members on the Ross Committee, is a very clumsy approach to planning.

Has the planning process for Ross been corrupted?

REFLECTIONS

Is the Special Committee of Council system, with a committee of unelected and Council officer selected members, the best way to pursue governance and planning in the towns of the Northern Midlands?

If the residents of Clarence were told to approach the Council and their elected Aldermen through unelected members of a Special Committee of Council, Mayor Doug Chipman would have a riot on his hands, and might find himself unceremoniously dumped in Kangaroo Bay.

We live in a democratic society, and expect standards of democracy and fairness.

It is a long way down the river of time now since 1993, when the newly formed Northern Midlands Council began forming town committees.

Some Rossians hanker for the days when Ross had their own elected Council, but others go along with the system, and some join the Ross Committee.

Faced with the creation of an undemocratic additional level of governance, I am left wondering how the old jalopy of democracy could be revived in Ross and put back on the road again.

The present approach of elected Councillors taking a hands-off approach with Ross, and allowing an unelected town committee to determine what happens, creates a situation where the elected representatives have become aloof and hard to approach, uncommunicative, and actively resisting communication from ratepayers.

In the Northern Midlands all Council meetings are held in Longford.

The Councillors undertake an annual bus tour of the municipality, not to meet the residents, but more like tourists.

If one of the large property owners had a matter of concern and contacted the elected Councillors, would they be told to speak to the Ross Local District Committee?

To the south, the situation in the Southern Midlands Council is entirely different.

They don’t have town committees comprised of unelected Council officer selected members.

The southern Council holds their meetings in every town, with a different town each month.

The Councillors get to meet the residents in their town, and get a grass roots feel for what is needed.

Would Ross be better off as a town in the Southern Midlands?

THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO

There are some streets in Ross named after battles in the Napoleonic Wars, including Waterloo Street.

There was recently a battle in Waterloo Street in Ross, which demonstrates how the Council is on a different planet in Longford, and how the unelected members of the Ross Committee are not on their toes.

A few years ago the Council closed their works depot in Ross, had the land rezoned and put it up for auction.

This land next to the railway line was handed in at auction, and is now for sale for $40,000. [5]

But where did the Council works depot move to?

The Council have been using a Crown Land road reserve to park gravel and dump leaf litter.

I alerted State elected representatives to the situation, and David Llewellyn MP visited the site, when a mountain range of gravel had been parked there, on both sides of the road.

Crown Land Services decided that this was actually illegal, and ordered the Council to vacate the street.

The Council did this, and erected two “No Dumping” signs.

Why would the Council close their works depot, seek to sell the land, and then pursue an illegal activity on Crown Land?

Why did the Council need to erect signs to tell themselves to obey the law?

Bad example.

CONCLUSION

The town committees, undemocratic, comprised of members who seek such positions, is the wrong form of organisation for effective planning and good governance.

Either the town committees should be abandoned, or they should be formed through elections, making them more like community associations.

Should there be a State Government enquiry into why the old Ross School was sold, which could have been a fine town park, and then more land purchased in Ross, to develop a new town park at much greater cost?

Such an enquiry could include ~

(1)  Why was the old Ross School, a gift to the people of Ross from the Tasmanian Government, sold, when it could have served as a community centre, tennis club, art gallery and town park?
(2)  Why was more land purchased in Ross to develop a new town park, which is not part of the history of Ross, at much greater cost than retaining the old Ross School?
(3)  Why was money available for a heritage consultant for the new Ross Park development, which is not part of the history of Ross, and not for an application to get the Ross Bridge onto the National Heritage list, as it is the most significant heritage icon in Ross, and of value to the town’s culture, heritage values and economy?

One of the most pressing needs for Ross is a development plan, to draw on old plans and define a vision for the future of Ross.

Five towns had comprehensive development plans drawn up in 2012, but not for Ross. [6]

Why didn’t Ross deserve a development plan, which would have given direction to planning and development in and around Ross, and also fed into the preparation of the Interim Planning Scheme in 2013?

Is this lack of a vision for the community, heritage, tourism and commerce of Ross, the reason why we read Ross described in the Interim Planning Scheme as a ~ “retirement community”? [7]

Would Ross be better off in the Southern Midlands, where a Council meeting would be held in Ross at least once a year, where a vision could be forged with other historic towns of similar character?

Ross has amazing potential as a vibrant community, a place for the arts to happen, an exciting visitor destination, and unique village to set up a business.

The clumsy approach to planning and governance by the Northern Midlands Council is steadily wrecking the town.

Returning democracy to Ross will be a good beginning to a better future for this magical heritage village.

Better to act now, than wait for the next blow to the heritage values and visitor experience of Ross.

The first act could be, to ensure that proper democracy is returned to Ross.

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REFERENCES ~

[1]  Council Committees
Northern Midlands Council
http://www.northernmidlands.tas.gov.au/Page/Page.aspx?Page_Id=64

[2]  Agenda Attachments of 18 May 2015
Northern Midlands Council
http://www.northernmidlands.tas.gov.au/files/2015_Agenda_and_Attachments/2015-05-18_Agenda_Attachments_Open_Council.pdf

[3]  Council Agenda of 18 May 2015
Northern Midlands Council
http://www.northernmidlands.tas.gov.au/files/2015_Agenda_and_Attachments/2015-05-18_Agenda_open_council.pdf

[4]  Ross Local District Committee minutes of 1 February 2017
http://www.northernmidlands.tas.gov.au/files/Minutes_Ross_Local_District_Committee/2017-02-01__RLDC_Revised_Minutes_.pdf

[5]  Lot 2 Bond Street, Ross
Roberts Real Estate
http://www.realestate.com.au/property-residential+land-tas-ross-201744310

[6]  Development Plans
Northern Midlands Council
http://www.northernmidlands.tas.gov.au/Page/Page.aspx?Page_Id=351

[7]  Interim Planning Scheme 2013
Northern Midlands Council
http://www.northernmidlands.tas.gov.au/files/Planning_Forms/NMC_Interim_Planning_Scheme_2013.pdf


EARLIER ARTICLES ~

Will Ross Be Moved (Part 2)
5 March 2017
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/will-ross-be-moved-part-ii/

Will Ross be Moved? (Part 1)
24 February 2017
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/will-ross-be-moved-part-i/

And they’re at it again …
23 December 2016
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/and-theyre-at-it-again-/

A Tasmanian Murder Mystery: Who is Killing Ross?
16 January 2016
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/a-tasmanian-murder-mystery-who-is-killing-ross/

A Grave Matter in Ross
13 December 2015
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/a-grave-matter-in-ross/

Moreton Bay to Port Arthur
30 April 2016
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/moreton-bay-to-port-arthur/

The Mysterious Art of the Ross Bridge
6 August 2012
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/the-mysterious-art-of-the-ross-bridge/

The Real Jorgen Jorgenson
30 November 2009
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/jorg/

*Kim Peart was raised in Howrah, Tasmania, from 1952, gaining a taste of history with expeditions to the Bellerive Fort and travelling on the old ferries across the River Derwent. The town of Ross in the central midlands captured Kim’s interest in the 1970s, as the place where there may be a portrait of the one-time governor of Iceland, Jorgen Jorgenson (1780-1841), as the king on the Ross Bridge. Kim organised a seminar on Jorgenson in Ross in 2004, as part of Tasmania’s bicentenary. It was a love of history and the country life that drew Kim and his wife Jennifer to Ross in 2014, where they now live. Kim also engages in the future, connecting with people around the World with an interest in space exploration, where meetings happen via avatars in the virtual worlds, including Second Life. With a head in the stars and a heart in history, Kim also looks to the health of the Earth, and Ross is a good place to do that.