September 27, 2001
Council Consultation process
Kali has written an article that appeared in the Echo entitled "Community Consultation: Reality or Illusion?" you can see it here ....
Community Consultation: Reality or Illusion?
by Kali Shapiro
Community: a group joined by common character, a group with shared origin and locality.
A café serves as the Mayor’s office, where one might catch a glimpse of Tom and even have a word with him about any public issue; the local paper uses more than a quarter of their editorial for Letters to the Editor; MacDonald’s and Club Med have been overwhelmingly defeated by a public that simply will not stand to loose their town to the onslaught of progressive undesirable development pressures. This is Byron Bay. This is what makes Byron not just a town but a community. Community is a catch-phrase of the 21st century and a concept that should now be on the endangered species list.
Byron is the place that inspires people from other societies all over the world to believe in community. Because of this, Byron attracts individuals who enjoy participation in the public arena, encouraged by the possibility that we really can make a difference, that our voice really can be heard. It is here people have the courage to take risks to be heard, to be seen, to be radical and the result is that Byron remains one of last utopias – virtually unblemished by mega-business, disconnected development and rampant consumerisms.
A part of Byron’s past success is due to the public/ Council relationship and the individual’s ability to inform themselves of events and projects and participate in the decision making process. As Byron grows larger, however, we begin to notice a straign within the town fabric, it’s threads pulled between the choice to keep the communal integrity or compromise under economic pressure. There is growing is a large gap between the individual and the Council that impedes the ability for the average citizen to have genuine community input regarding the decisions that directly affect each of us. This gap is a result of shortcomings within the capacity to give and receive important information. As the developmental pressures increase, the gap widens. The problem is not development, nor the natural progression of metropolitan growth – but what the development often represents to us: a blatant disregard for the natural flow of communal sustainability. This natural flow can only continue as long as information is obtained freely by individuals. Communal sustainability hinges on this vital citizen / council link.
Every time a hotel or another subdivision is approved the public becomes more and more discouraged by their inability to have real say and impact on the future of their town. The discouragement arises not by the Council approval, but by the process displayed in which community consultation is shown to be mere polite rhetoric used to keep us all busy and content. Many people feel that control of their community’s future has been progressively taken out of their hands. Communities, through engaging constructively with council, have a right to control their own destiny. We need a mechanism for ensuring genuine community input into decision making on an ongoing basis, not only at election time.
Let us walk through an example of an ordinary D.A. up for review from Council and let’s pretend in this instance that we are a concerned citizen of Byron wanting to speak up about the future of his/her own neighborhood. First we start by looking in the Echo at the Council page. Scanning over this page can lead to much frustration as one quickly realizes that most of the important information concerning Council committee meetings and developments up for approval is inadequate if not completely misleading. Most D.A.’s listed are not necessarily area-specific or even land-owner specific making our first effort to educate ourselves about the developments in our area quite discouraging. This lack of information makes it hard for us to figure out if then a trip out to Mullumbimby to get a copy of the D.A. would be worth the trouble. D.A.’s are not on the Council website, so driving across town is the only alternative. Should we be able to decode the Council page and have the willingness to make the trip to Mullumbimby, we then have the challenge of understanding the D.A. now presented and have to trust that the information within this D.A. is accurate. What we many times learn is that the D.A.’s themselves are misleading according to the hidden interests of the developers. Often reports of collateral damage is withheld – such as the burning of many trees to put in power lines. Simply put, we as residents are not given the proper information to enable us to speak out intelligently.
Let us take another example of the Rural Settlement Strategy, a document recently presented for public consultation. We are told we may look at these documents on the Council web page or go to the library. . Should we have the luck to own a computer and be clever enough to actually find the documents on the web, or even have the even greater luck to have so much spare time on our hands that we can spend all afternoon in the library – then we can begin the awesome task of pouring over pages and pages of undecipherable material. This process can be intimidating at best. Now, after many hours of research, we can begin to then make an intelligent submission about a document we could never find or at least never understand. In addition, some of these documents are presented with very little time to respond. Most people would not even try and this is a shame. While the website information is most valuable and well organized, the amount of reading and level of understanding each document requires is beyond what most people are able or willing to do.
What might be some solutions to this gap? First, we question Council as to the authenticity of their pleas for public assistance. Does local government really want public input or are they just being politically correct? If the request is genuine, then we have lots of room to play. Perhaps we could form a Progress Association network committee consisting of representatives from each association to interface directly with Council with the aim of closing this gap. With regard to reading documents, digestible summaries could be made and distributed among Progress Associations, other interest groups and printed in the Echo.
And how about that Council page – surely that could be made much more user friendly with D.A.’s also listed on the web.
We can look at this opportunity for change within a larger communal context also. With the increased power given to multinationals and the gradual decline of the simple human capacity to be heard and understood, Community is bound for extinction. When a town no longer has the gift of radical and genuine citizen participation, the link between humanity and development is lost, and then an entire community is gone. Byron is a place of worldwide inspiration. Knowing this, we begin to see that protecting Byron Bay is not simply a local issue. Protecting Byron is about supporting a town to be a model for others so that what is being saved is Community.
Posted at September 27, 2001 12:00 AM
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