The debate between the Otago Peninsula community and the Otago Regional Council over the provision of bus services for school commuters has been a long and arduous one. Recently, local parent Jason Graham and I presented a petition of nearly 1000 signatures seeking three very simple things;
A timetable change
An additional bus to create a half hourly service like the rest of the city
A minor route change that caters for all users.
Over the course of the bus argument the way in which the community has presented well researched, reasoned and pragmatic solutions has been difficult for the Regional Council to answer. Combine that with a sympathetic media and the campaign has been very effective. However, what has also been effective is the way the community removed the emotion from the debate. That has allowed a far more compelling and coherent argument to be presented. Whether that will be successful is now up for debate. The community has been united over this issue and has shown considerable resolve. I can only hope that it’s not in vain.
Its been a busy year for myself and the Peninsula Community Board with a variety of issues and projects. I never find being on the Board a chore because there’s always something interesting to be done or a new people to meet. I’ve always been a problem-solver so being on the Board is actually an enjoyable challenge. I’m looking forward to 2016 because I feel I have more to offer and do for the community. Some of those issues include;
The 2GP and how the final issues around hazard management and rural are resolved for regions like the Peninsula.
Tomahawk School and the ongoing need to ensure the community have a say in the way these Council assets are managed.
Tomahawk Lagoon and the way the ORC manage the water quality and levels for the welfare of the community.
Roading projects around the Peninsula including the re-opening of Highcliff Road.
Sand dune management in places like Tomahawk and Okia.
Supporting the Te Rauone community to complete their beach management project.
Reviewing how effective the new freedom camping bylaw has been.
Continuing to advocate for better broadband and rural internet access.
I’ve been actively involved with community groups for nearly 25 years. I’ve worked with them professionally in a range of roles and issues as well as stepping up in my own community and actively taking part in many of them. They’re an interesting dynamic, some are enthusiastic, positive and embrace new challenges. Others, have very set goals and objectives and seldom deviate from that path. Perhaps the biggest challenge is a community’s ability to develop effective co-ordination and communication between various agencies and local government. Often it is one of the most frustrating things for community groups who can see local government as an impediment to decision-making in the community. How many times do you see in the media, frustrations vented by community groups over what appear to be officious and unnecessary rules? It raises the question, how well does local government actually listen and engage with its community?
Its become clear that the City Council are reinventing the wheel for community engagement with the abolition of Community Boards and passing on that role to specific groups. Yet, it’s also clear that the City Council are not looking at why their engagement to date has failed outside of areas that have Community Boards. Which raises another important question, would it not be more useful and probably more successful to develop urban Community Boards to improve the Council’s representation? A final question is, in a city of 120,000 people and 14 City Councillors just how well are those Councillors providing information to their constituents, and is this a case where the so-called “super ward” doesn’t actually provide the level of representation required?
As I raised earlier community groups are an interesting dynamic that have a variety of causes, motivations and membership. With this in mind one of my biggest concerns over the City Councils plans is the question of community and representational equity. The limited and competitive funding base for community groups has shrunk over recent years and this trend does not seem to be easing. Which raises further questions about what funding model the City Council would use to implement this plan? From the newspaper article its clear that the City Council may well have to fund additional staffing to ensure the proposal works, but that doesn’t include the annual operating costs that community groups will undoubtedly have. With often stringent criteria for external funding it seems unlikely national and local funding groups are likely to want to fund community groups purely on the basis that they are privatised conduits for Council information services and representation. Importantly too, it seems doubtful that community’s will want a group whose sole focus is the dissemination of Council information and not developing individual projects that meet the community’s needs.
The views of one group may not be the views of the community
One of the biggest issues with this proposal is transparency. Community Boards are generally not agenda driven, but driven by service to the community through an electoral process and the confines of the City’s Long Term Plan. That means that Board members are accountable to the constituents of their district in their decision-making. Community groups are not accountable in the same way. In fact they are only accountable to their membership, which may not be an inclusive representation of the district that they come from. This can be seriously divisive in the community, where people can feel disenfranchised and distanced from those who hold the information, funding and ultimately the power. Other concerns over such a model must be the relationship that the City Council has with a community group. A group who has the “ear of the Council” will be able to forward their agenda or philosophy as the “dominant” view of the community, when often the views within a community are far more complex. There’s also a real danger that groups who hold with a prevailing philosophy popular with Council, may be more likely to be successful with funding and support. That could lead to an inequitable distribution of resources that is politically driven, rather than being based on community need.
Community representation should be fair, equitable and transparent
Finally, there is the question of social equity and the ability to ensure that each community within a district can manage and sustain community aspirations through their local groups. It’s clear to me that poorer community’s and ones without leadership are often the ones who miss out on funding and resources where its most needed. Socio-economic pressures and education within some districts will limit the ability of people in those areas to organise and rally their community. Well educated and well organised community’s are far more likely to be able to be proactive in the promotion of their needs. Coupled with this concern is also how the community and Council will deal with recruitment, group failures, generational change and even an unwillingness of some communities to engage with the process. From my perspective and with my experience, there are significant failings in this scheme by the City Council. Perhaps most worrying is that the City Council seem to want to “manufacture” community groups and leadership to cope with their own failings in consultation and engagement. It simply doesn’t work that way, groups form around central issues that are affecting a community or neighbourhood. They are largely issues-based organisations that evolve into wider entities or disappear once the issue is resolved. By all means we should support and nurture groups within the community, but it must be in a transparent and equitable way.
Our first experiences of the environment and biodiversity usually come from our early explorations as children in our backyard and local community. It’s the beginning of our awareness of the natural world and an important step into our understanding of the world around us. The Dunedin City Council has recently presented Te Ao Turoa – The Natural World as a draft environmental strategy for the City. The proposed strategy lo sets out themes, objectives and priorities for the management of the Dunedin Environment.
I was asked to write a submission on the proposed strategy on behalf of the Otago Peninsula Community Board. Strategy documents like this one are highly aspirational, they aspire to high level objectives and priorities. There’s nothing wrong with this as it’s designed to give some direction in a very complicated issue, but the real test of these kinds of documents lies in how they are going to be implemented and funded. The other part of that test is whether the organisation that develops the strategy can ensure that it becomes part of the broader corporate culture of that organisation at all levels. This is a particularly critical aspect for its success.
My submission on behalf of the Community Board dealt specifically with the effects of the strategy on the Otago Peninsula. Implementation, communication and the ability of the strategy to be assimilated into the contractual, legal and policy landscape were major themes of that submission. The other aspect of the submission was the acknowledgement of community, business and human resources in the management and conservation of the environment needs deeper consideration. This is directly relevant to the Peninsula as our landscape and environment is so highly reliant on people who act as guardians and stewards of this unique place. It’s always difficult to synthesize such a daunting topic as the environment in a few succinct pages of a submission. The scale of the topic and its complexities means that you always feel as though there’s something you’ve missed out. I imagine that the strategy process will be an evolutionary one as submissions come in from a wide range of people around the city with widely different views.
Many households and businesses have frustrations over the availability and quality of broadband in New Zealand. It seems to be taking forever for the fibre network and rural broadband initiatives to become available for many. The Otago Peninsula is no different and given its importance to the local economy as a tourism destination the need for better broadband coverage is becoming more apparent. At a broader level, business, education and community opportunities are being impeded by not having a reliable and accessible service.
No matter what scale business is, the opportunities that broadband provides are immense to improve productivity, the way people work and the way they promote their business. I was asked by the Peninsula Community Board to put together a submission to the Governments Digital Enablement Plan. The submission will be part of the Dunedin city Council’s citywide submission on broadband for Dunedin. I would have liked to have placed the direction of the submission from inquiry from the wider community, but time did not allow that. I’ve tried to provide a balance between business and community needs over the broadband issue so that everyone gets a fair degree of representation. I’m still very open to people contacting me if they have any thoughts or queries about the submission.
The recent Representation Review undertaken by the Dunedin City Council will see major changes to Community Boards across the city. For the Otago Peninsula that means we have lost the Tomahawk area from the Otago Peninsula and next year may lose two of the Board’s members. This appears to be part of a longer term plan by the City Council to abolish Community Boards all together. For me its deeply disappointing to lose part of our community from what has been a traditional part of the Peninsula for more than 150 years. I’ve heard arguments from urban people who areas with Community Boards essentially get two types of representation. To some degree that’s true, but when I look around the city there’s actually a good argument for having more board’s to represent people in urban areas. Take South Dunedin for example, what might an active Community Board have done for this suburb? Perhaps it might not still be waiting after many years for a library to be built.
The other aspect of the Representation Review that I’ve found concerning is the question of value to the community from having a board. It appears that the long-term plan will be to disestablish boards from all communities, and have community groups act as conduits with the City Council. In essence this is a type of community privatisation, where private groups will represent the needs of their community and compete for the small amount of funding in that sector. The trouble with this option is how can the community or the Council actually know whether any one group actually represent the views of any given community? Communities are funny things, often its the squeaky wheel or the loudest voice that is heard first. Sometimes, that’s not always fair and there are examples of local groups claiming to represent the views of the community when they have no such mandate. This is where Community Boards come to the fore, because they are elected bodies with rules around conflicts of interest and representation. They are not serving their own interest, but the collective interest of their communities.
The loss of Community Boards has serious consequences for governance and representational democracy in Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula. More importantly it is breaking up the traditional areas and communities of our city.
The Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen once wrote that “a community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” In many respects it was that wish to make a difference and be part of the decision-making process that led me to stand for the Otago Peninsula Community Board. Being prepared “to take the helm” as Ibsen wrote and represent my community in the daily ebbs of flows of community life. As 2014 draws to close its a good time for me to reflect on what the year has brought for me and the community while I have been serving on the Board. Probably most importantly I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the diversity of views that I’ve heard from people in the community. Those views all have one distinct common theme and that is a real concern for the type and nature of the community that people live in on the Peninsula. Some are steeped in the needs of the landscape and conservation management while others are heavily drawn to the facilities, opportunities and needs of the people who create the Peninsula community. All are argued with the same level of passion. I’ve enjoyed my first year on the Community Board mostly because of the people I’ve met and that through that contact I’m able in some small way make a difference to the wider social and political fabric that covers the community. Whether it be bus routes, the Portobello Pontoon or the Tomahawk Lagoon each issue has importance for the community that must deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis. For me it’s not a chore, rather its a challenge that asks me to exercise all of my skill in mediation, listening, planning and problem-solving. Sometimes it’s also about using simple common-sense which I’ve found that Peninsula residents have in droves. Its been an interesting and stimulating year and I’m looking forward to 2015 with similar enthusiasm.
The American Unionist Cesar Chavez once said “Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sake and for our own.” With the Dunedin City Council undertaking its “Draft Significance and Engagement Policy“ we might well consider just how we decide and disseminate our individual and collective aspirations. For any community that means having the ability to voice both its opinions and values in the local government environment so that they are heard and understood. Deciding what is a big or small issue is fraught with questions and problems. Competing interests within the community may have a wide range of views that are equally valid, but they may not necessarily align into a consensus. What is significant to you may not be important to someone else. Which is why being able to present your views is an important part of ensuring that community aspirations can be achieved or developed to meet its needs. The City Council’s draft strategy is an important process for Dunedin residents and one that everyone should look closely at. All residents should feel that such a policy will assist them in being heard, listened too and ultimately that decisions over issues large or small are transparent and fair. Feedback on this policy closes on Monday 10th November, so “don’t snooze and lose.”