My first month on council

copy-cropped-Sue2.jpgIt is now around a month since I was sworn in as a councillor. First impressions are that there is a lot of social pressure to develop consensus with the other councillors to maintain the status quo. Amongst the councillors, there is a lot of looking to the council management with a view to finding out what is acceptable. While it is true that the council officers have a lot of experience and skills, council policies and decisions are political.

Unless councillors are prepared to advocate progressive policies which break the consensus of very mild reforms within the framework of neoliberal economics, the Moreland Council won’t succeed in making the lives of working-class people in Moreland significantly better.

The North-East ward councillors were sworn in at the ceremonial council meeting on November 12. This meeting elected mayor and deputy mayor. There was only one nomination for mayor — Oscar Yildiz from the Labor Right. I encouraged the Greens and the only left Labor councillor to nominate for the position but they declined. In the end, Oscar was elected with me and the two Greens voting against. I supported Lita Gillies, the left Labor councillor for deputy mayor.

November 21 was the first council meeting to deal with regular council business. Some of the issues dealt with at the meeting included:

Mandatory height controls
A motion from Lambros Tapinos for the council to seek a meeting with Planning Minister Matthew Guy to express strong support for mandatory height controls for the Brunswick Structure Plan was passed. This was an important step forward because the previous council repeatedly rejected mandatory height limits.

However, the council didn’t pass a motion that I moved for mandatory height limits across Moreland. The motion I moved said: “Council resolves that height limits for new developments in Moreland be mandatory and not discretionary and where Council applies for height controls and there is policy documentation available to support height limits that these limits be mandatory not discretionary.”

The councillors looked to the director of planning and economic development, Kirsten Coster, for advice. Coster argued that any policy for mandatory height limits had to be supported by a structure plan and that only Brunswick had a structure plan so you could only push for mandatory height limits in the Brunswick Structure Plan. She also said that the Coburg Activity Centre already had mandatory height limits in it. Coster said that if Moreland Council voted for mandatory height limits, the developers would all bypass the council and go straight to the minister to get approval.

These arguments swayed the other councillors. I replied that I felt that the council could adopt a policy position of mandatory height limits so that future structure plans be developed with mandatory height limits. Height limits in structure plans are meaningless unless they are mandatory. The other councillors weren’t prepared to vote on the motion and voted to defer it.

The recent history of the Moreland Council is one where the council has caved in to developers’ demands with the excuse that if it doesn’t give the developers most of what they want, they will bypass the council and go straight to VCAT or the minister. There hasn’t been a preparedness to back residents’ campaigns against developers and then challenge the developers at VCAT. In contrast, the Yarra Council has been prepared to challenge at VCAT and has had some victories.

Gowanbrae parking issues
Gowanbrae was built as a “green” area where people don’t need cars so the road widths are very narrow and don’t allow for two vehicles to park adjacent to each other and allow a third to pass through. The problem is that there is no public transport so that residents need more cars, not less, to get around. The narrow roads mean that residents are forced to park on the nature strip and are being heavily booked by council officers.

Lita Gillies moved a motion which I supported to have a moratorium on parking fines until a solution is reached. Unfortunately, the motion was lost.

Other council items
I moved two other items. One was for a review of parking around Merlynston Station. Because Merlynston is an overlap Zone One/Zone Two station, commuters drive from further up the line to get cheaper fares. The main issue is the existence of a Zone Two which makes public transport too expensive. The council passed the motion.

Local Kurdish community campaign
I also moved a motion of support for the Kurdish community’s campaign for language rights. The Moreland Council has a significant Kurdish population with the Kurdish Association having been based in Moreland for a number of years.

“Around 1000 Kurdish political prisoners and a number of Kurdish parliamentarians have been on a hunger strike which began in Turkey on September 12. It ended on November 18, with around 65 prisoners having been on hunger strike for the full 68 days. Many are close to death. From Friday, November 16 to Sunday, November 18, around 40-100 Melbourne Kurds, mostly from the Moreland and surrounding area, participated in a solidarity hunger strike. The hunger strike was over the right of Kurdish people in Turkey to have the Kurdish language recognised for use in education and the public sphere, including the judicial system and for improved conditions for their leader Abdullah Ocalan who has been in solitary confinement for 13 years and denied access to lawyers for the last 15 months. Council recognises that the right to speak one’s own language is a basic human right. Council recognises that this is a significant concern to the local Kurdish community and expresses its solidarity with their campaign for language rights and the humane treatment of political prisoners.”

However, most of the councillors looked blank when I mentioned the Kurdish community because many appeared to never have heard of the Kurds. I agreed to come back to a future council meeting with the motion.

December 12 council meeting
A positive decision at the December council meeting is the beginning of a conservation plan for Edgars Creek. Two Aboriginal elders from the Ballerrt Mooroop College in Glenroy, Uncle Gary Murray and Aunty Barb Williams-Weston, used the public question time to ask for council’s support to regain control of the site where the Ballerrt Mooroop College was located, as well negotiate for the Aboriginal community to have free access to the Spirit Tree and the Ceremonial Ground.

The Ballerrt Mooroop College was the only Aboriginal school in Melbourne. When the state government moved to shut it down in 2010, the BMC school community began an occupation of the school gym to save the school. The occupation lasted until September 2011 when the state government agreed to a compromise which would have allowed the school to remain and retain the Spirit Tree, the Ceremonial Ground and the Gathering Place (school gym) to remain with the BMC. However, in early 2011, the school principle expelled all students from the school and the state government has shut the school down. Since then, the school gym has been bulldozed, the ceremonial ground and Spirit Poles have been trashed.

I moved a motion that the council immediately pursue the state government to ensure immediate access to the Spirit Tree and Ceremonial Ground for the Aboriginal community, and that the council meeting with the Aboriginal community to discuss the future use of the site.

Community safety
The portfolio councillors for social development, Meghan Hopper and Samantha Ratnam, moved a resolution for a community safety review which would look at all issues of community safety including lighting and CCTV cameras. The motion was moved because the previous council had reacted to the tragic murder of a Brunswick woman by calling for more CCTV cameras. This motion wanted a safety review to look more broadly than just to CCTV cameras.

I felt that the motion was a bit too general and need some more specific direction so I moved to include an extra two components for the safety review to consider. This was to ensure that all options were considered and that the review did not get narrowed down to CCTV cameras as they do not guarantee increased safety. Many participants in the community safety forum at Brunswick Town Hall in November highlighted lack of street lighting as a major issue. Even the police weren’t pushing for more CCTV cameras, especially as the overwhelming number of murders and assaults in Moreland are a result of family violence.

The extra points that I moved to include were:

  • Investigate the trial of a courtesy bus that visits key nightlife areas in Moreland to pick people up and drop them at their door or at major transport hubs.
  • Review the adequacy of Moreland’s family violence prevention strategy with a view to increasing resources if necessary.

Unfortunately, these were voted down.

Mandatory height limits
I moved my motion for mandatory height limits across Moreland again. Again, no councilor was prepared to second the motion.

Access to meeting venues in Moreland
I was contacted by someone from a mothers group which wanted to hire the Robinsons Reserve Neighbourhood House for a first aid meeting. The group was denied the venue because they didn’t have public liability insurance. The group is just an informal group so it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have public liability insurance.

The Neighbourhood Houses are managed by management committees and not by council. For council-managed venues, groups can pay an extra $25 to get covered by the council’s public liability insurance. I moved a motion that the council review the availability of meeting venues in Moreland, in particular to address the issue of groups being denied access to venues because they lack public liability insurance.

I was rather surprised that this motion was voted down. I will re-raise the issue of meeting venues because there is a shortage of meeting venues in Moreland, particularly in Fawkner, Glenroy, Newlands and Pascoe Vale.

Open space supplies and services tender
The council has established a tender for a panel of contractors to provide Open Space Supplies and Services across Moreland. I voted against this because I believe that such jobs should be done by council staff rather than being contracted out.

Oak Park bus
I moved a motion for the council to call on the transport minister and the transport depart to review the decision to scrap the bus stop at Oak Park Station. This was carried. I intend to take up more issues around public transport in the new year.

Waste service
A proposal was put up for a review of benchmarking between the council-operated and the privately contracted waste services in Moreland. North of Bell St is operated by the council and south of Bell St is operated by Citywide. There isn’t any proposal to contract out the service in the north of Moreland. I contacted the local ASU organiser Dean Dando to find out if the proposal had the support of the union. Dando said that the union did support the benchmarking review because the union wanted to keep rubbish collection in-house and didn’t want it contracted out. The union has been involved in the design of the review.