Council Laman St review exposes need for cultural change on community engagement, say Greens

5 March 2012

Newcastle Council’s review of its handling of the Laman Street trees issue (to be considered at tomorrow night’s council meeting) shows why the city needs a totally new approach to community engagement, according to The Greens.

“The internal report tells the councillors that the next time an issue like Laman St emerges, it will be treated as an operational matter, and neither they nor the community will be consulted,” The Greens Lord Mayoral and Ward 4 candidate for Newcastle, John Sutton, said.

“This has potentially dire implications for other significant trees, and any other community assets in Newcastle, that council officers say should be removed on the grounds of risk,” Mr Sutton said.

“The report ignores the fact that such decisions are usually not simple matters, especially where major community assets (such as the Laman St trees) are concerned.

“Risk management is almost always a matter of balancing costs (including risk) against the community benefits that an asset provides. Elected representatives and ordinary citizens have a major role to play in such decisions – they should not be left solely in the hands of unelected bureaucrats.

“In the case of the Laman St trees, many Newcastle citizens and external independent experts provided evidence that council officers and their paid consultants exaggerated the level of risk, and council officers rejected every opportunity for an independent expert review of the risk assessments that would almost certainly have demonstrated that the trees did not need to be removed.

“Instead of recognising that the problem in this matter may have been with the attitude of the council staff involved, this report says that council officers should never have even listened to these views, and shouldn’t have brought the matter to the elected council, because the officers had already decided that the Laman St trees would be removed before March 2010.

“The report assumes that council staff and consultants are infallible in such matters, and have all the answers when it comes to making such decisions. It tries to frame “the problem” as just a matter of messaging and spin, blaming the community and the media.

“This report really highlights that it’s the council’s organisational culture that is the key problem here, and the need to change this will be one of the key priorities for The Greens in this year’s council election campaign.

“Given this approach, it’s disappointing, but hardly surprising, that when the council recently reviewed its City Engagement Charter it refused to accept a proposal (by Greens councillor Michael Osborne) to add a commitment to “developing and maintaining an organisational culture that understands, respects and values community engagement”, and to “acknowledging and actively supporting the right of members of the community to have a say in decisions on matters that affect their lives”.

For more information or comment, contact John Sutton (Greens candidate for Newcastle Lord Mayor and Ward 4) on 0411 154 004. See also: http://johnsutton4council.blogspot.com.au

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