Unseemly haste in Newcastle City Council’s radical restructure

At last Tuesday’s meeting Newcastle City Council radically restructured the way it will operate. Unfortunately, it was done without real consultation with the elected councillors.

The new management structure will eliminate one director, an entire division and five senior management positions in a significant departure from the current structure. The decision was made at a closed meeting of the elected council on Tuesday night this week. Prior to the meeting councillors were provided with no information about the proposed restructure.

Whether or not this new structure will indeed bring greater efficiencies and better functioning to the council, I have very little idea. I hope it does. However, I don’t have and have not been given sufficient information to convince me, as an elected representative of Newcastle residents that this new management structure will provide Newcastle with a council structure that protects all that is good about our city and its community.

Exactly how will this new structure protect Newcastle’s heritage, its human scale built form, its magnificent environmental assets and its key cultural institutions such as the Art Gallery? What will become of City Engagement? Will it be contracted into “Customer Service” and will genuine community engagement become an afterthought?  How will strategic planning for the City of Newcastle fit into the new plan? Or, is strategic planning no longer necessary as local government is stripped of its strategic planning rights?

The determination of Council’s organisational structure is a key responsibility of any newly elected council. The Local Government Act requires that each council reviews and determines its structure within twelve months of an ordinary council election.

At Tuesday’s confidential meeting, councillors were given a presentation of the proposed new structure with little time to question or consider the many implications that such a radical change will mean for the city. Yet the vote to accept the proposed structure, almost entirely unexplored by the elected council, was taken after a brief discussion.

A crucial aspect of the democratic control vested in councillors, as elected representatives of their community at a local level, is to carefully consider how any restructure will affect the overall amenity of the city. Surely ratepayers should expect that councillors will spend considerable time and effort exploring compelling evidence and rigorous study if they are going to vote in fundamental changes to the council’s structure. It is a decision that will affect the services to 160,000 residents and have an even greater effect on the professional lives of Council staff.

Most of us invest quite some time and effort investigating the best options when making a holiday plan. Can we truly feel confident that at least a similar effort went into Council’s consideration of its new structure? Since councillors were presented with no documentary arguments in favour of the restructure apart from a PowerPoint presentation from the General Manager, it is hard to answer that question in the affirmative.

The unseemly haste of this decision illustrates a disturbing trend in Newcastle City Council. The democratic duty of elected councillors to effectively represent residents is currently under threat in Newcastle. Recently, councillors were asked to consider a media policy that effectively gags councillors from making comments to the media about council decisions once those decisions are made. How can elected Councillors effectively represent their constituency if they can’t discuss the Council’s decisions?

On a statewide level, the Coalition’s proposed planning laws will significantly restrict the number of planning decisions that councillors will be able to make for their city’s future. If the trend continues, when will we see elected councils being entirely replaced by unelected bureaucrats?

Therese Doyle

Greens Councillor, Ward 2, Newcastle City Council

Home phone: 4926 2513

Mobile: 0434 257 892

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