Some Rutherglen residents have expressed their disappointment with a recent public forum hosted by Indigo Shire that was intended for residents to meet councillors and discuss community issues.
Former councillor and community advocate Roberta Horne said an overly ambitious agenda, a capacity crowd and an uncompromising meeting format created a disruptive atmosphere which resulted in at least 20 residents leaving the Rutherglen Seniors Citizens Hall.
The forum was broken up into five separate stations attended by councillors and shire officers which Ms Horne said was “another barrier to clear communication”.
Ms Horne said the five stations in the main hall were quickly populated and once full the other attendees were directed to other areas, including the storeroom at the rear of the building.
“Indigo Shire Councillor and Deputy Mayor, Sophie Price, was unwilling to accept requests by a number of community leaders to revert to a round table discussion so there could be a free flow of information between the community and council representatives,” she said.
“Cr Price persisted with the original meeting format, which meant those who chose to stay had to struggle to hear due to the high noise levels emanating from the multiple discussions.
“The one hour time allocation was patently inadequate to cover major items such as the Main Street Revitalisation and Lake King projects, the Economic Development Strategy, as well as the usual ongoing issues of roads, rates and rubbish.
“While the new format of dividing attendees into small groups may, as Cr Price contended, prevent the same few people dominating the conversations, it limits the cross-pollination of ideas, relies on the level of understanding of the presiding councillor and does not provide definitive responses.
“It must also be recognised that it is unreasonable to expect people who are not active or do not live in this area to be fully aware of all the relevant details and background of particular issues.
“At the end of the session everyone came together and comments/concerns of each group were shared with everybody and are to be collated and made available on the shire’s website.”
Ms Horne said the meeting missed the mark and proved that Indigo Shire was not listening to those in the community.
“They are still not listening and we are none the wiser,” she said.
“This was a prime opportunity to openly engage with the community and address the high levels of scepticism and frustration throughout the shire.”
Destination Rutherglen Chairman Greg Duncan, who attended the meeting, told the Free Press that residents had concerns about the form of the meeting and the duration.
“People were expecting a public forum and what they were offered was breaking into small groups and individual councillors sitting in those small groups and hearing out everyone,” he said.
“There were some real benefits in doing that because there were some who would otherwise not have much to say or anything to say in a traditional town public meeting, so there was some good aspects in relation to that. There were some people who walked out at the start because they weren’t happy with the type of meeting it was and council weren’t flexible with relation to that.
“In the end, though, the meeting was extended and after the individual sessions there was a return to the group forum.”
Ms Horne said it was disappointing that the new CEO Trevor Ierino, Mayor Jenny O’Conner and Cr Bernard Gaffney were unable to attend.
Indigo Shire told the Free Press Cr Jenny O’Connor was on leave, while Bernard Gaffney and the CEO Trevor Ierino were in Melbourne attending a Rural Councils Victoria conference.
Deputy Mayor Price explained the reasoning behind breaking up into five smaller groups.
“We have been doing this for the past six forums because it allows more people to have a say,” she said.
“We have found in the past that coming together into one big circle means that stronger personalities can dominate and many people don’t have an opportunity to speak up. And the agenda is focussed solely on the issues that community members raise. Where once we would have had staff talk about progress on works in that town we now provide this information on sheets on the tables, which means we can devote the whole time for the community’s issues.”
Deputy Mayor Price said at the end of the forum, everyone came together in one group, as the community had requested, and someone from each table summarised the issues discussed at their table and everyone present heard what the concerns were across the whole forum.
“Comments after the forum were very positive about the smaller table format, although it was noisy in that particular venue,” she said.
“In follow up phone calls the next day by council staff it was unanimous that people there preferred the small table format because they had a better chance to be heard. We take notes of their concerns and these are placed on the website as a record of the conversations. And we follow up on these matters.”
Cr Price confirmed there was a small group of about ten people who left the forum when they did not want to participate on the small table format.
“The forum usually goes for an hour, but we extended this one for another hour so people could have a chance to speak,” she said.
Cr Price said the week after the meeting key Indigo Shire engineering staff openly engaged with the Main Street traders all day on Thursday (April 19), walking the street from 9am to well after 5pm, with plans and maps of the revitalisation work to be done on Main Street.
“Staff were really well received, and outlined what will be happening, for example the works will improve the crossing point near the Post Office and create a new crossing point near Valentines Bakery and they will both be made to disability standards,” she said.
“Work will also be done to improve Gollings Square near the supermarket and enhancements to Main Street will include kerb and channel outstands and improved street furniture. We plan to start in May and the work will take about three months – although work will be on hold when the Winery Walkabout takes place in June, so there will be no disruption to that major event.”