Greater Shepparton City Council consultation process flawed

By Myles Peterson

Residents and business owners have criticised Greater Shepparton City Council’s consultation process about upgrades to the intersection at Balaclava, Verney and New Dookie Rds, and Hawdon St.

‘‘What consultation?’’ one business owner said regarding a process they claim required them to sign a non-disclosure agreement to discuss the issue with council.

Of the dozen local businesses contacted, none were aware of the project before it was announced in early December, with construction due to start after the summer break.

But council said, via a written statement attributed to infrastructure director Phil Hoare, it issued a media release in February last year and a subsequent article ran in The News.

‘‘Council said the proposed interchange would enable upgrades to the Shepparton intersection of Balaclava Rd, Hawdon St, New Dookie Rd and Verney Rd that was previously identified as part of the Shepparton Alternative Route Freight Enhancement Package,’’ a line in the article read.

Mr Hoare also said the council delivered letters on November 30 ahead of an information session held on December 11.

The Best Little Paw House’s Susan Jack said she would have to relocate her business if the council did not listen to her request to replace her frontage parking, which would be removed by the planned upgrades.

She also expressed dissatisfaction with the December 11 information sessions, where there was little opportunity to deliver feedback.

Chicky Babe’s Jewellery and Beads’ Angie Ciavarella was frustrated with the process and said it gave her little faith in the council.

Other business owners expressed similar dissatisfaction.

While most agreed the upgrades were necessary, they felt left out of the process.

Construction was scheduled to start Monday, though there was little evidence of work when The News visited the site on multiple occasions this week.

Concern was expressed at the style of consultation the council implemented following the December announcement.

Only one member of each residence or business impacted was permitted to apply to sit on a ‘Project Reference Committee’, according to the residents and business owners spoken to.

Mr Hoare confirmed this condition.

‘‘(The condition is) to ensure the committee is effective and productive while providing a place for each interested family or business the chance to be represented,’’ he said.

To become eligible for the committee, the council mandated the signing of a six-page document.

Clause six of the document states members of the committee are not permitted to discuss any deliberations without the council’s express permission.

The non-disclosure agreement was to ensure confidence in the process, according to Mr Hoare.

‘‘The agreement provides confidence to committee members that they can express their opinions without being concerned that others, whom they may not know outside of this forum, will use that information to serve other motives,’’ he said.

Committee members expressed confusion to The News as to whether this meant they could discuss issues raised at the committee with their own family or business colleagues.

Geoff Wisely, who works for a business he claimed would be dramatically affected by the upgrades, said his wife had to fight to be part of the process.

Copies of the committee document, along with minutes of the meeting, were leaked to The News despite the confidentiality clause.

La Trobe lecturer Ian Tulloch, a specialist in politics and local government, said the behaviour of the council appeared at odds with its own 18-page Community Engagement Strategy, which opened with the line, ‘‘People in our communities should be involved in the decisions that affect them’’.

The document goes on to elaborate at length on the importance of community consultation and feedback, which includes ‘‘fair and transparent process’’ and ‘‘open and inclusive process’’.

Mr Tulloch said the council’s behaviour with regards to the committee and confidentiality clause sounded on the surface like an attempt to stifle comment.

‘‘Usually in these circumstances, if the residents are aggrieved they have a public forum. It sounds to me there’s been some sort of attempt by council to stifle that wider public commentary on what they’re doing,’’ he said.

‘‘By having an invite-only group, which may or may not be representative, then making them sign an agreement not to discuss it, they are effectively shutting down dissent.’’

But not all local organisations were unaware of the upgrade planning.

Shepparton High School principal Christine Cole said the school was notified as early as the first half of last year.

‘‘I can’t give you an exact date, but it was earlier last year, and we’ve been kept informed of the changes that were happening at the intersection,’’ she said.

Shepparton Regional Saleyards was also consulted during a traffic study, according to Mr Hoare.

The saleyards is run by the council.

The following is a copy of the questions put to council, coupled with the answers returned via a statement. The material is unedited and has been formatted for clarity. The statements were attributed to Greater Shepparton City Council Director Infrastructure Phil Hoare by a council spokesperson.

Prior to the December 7, 2018 announcement of the Verney and Balaclava Road intersection upgrade, which nearby residents and businesses were consulted?

Council engaged consultants to develop the design of the intersection and issued a media release in February 2018 advising of the bus interchange works to make way for the intersection including the conversion to signalisation.

Council issued the media release on 21 February 2018 and the Shepparton News ran an article covering the project in response to that media release. There has also been information on Councils website and other public forums.

Council had made the intersection project known to the community prior to December 2018, the communication on 7 December 2018 was in relation to the community information session to be held on 11 December 2018. Residents and businesses were advised of this session on 30 November 2018.  It was in December 2018, when Council had designs suitable for detailed consultation, that it invited residents and business owners and others who wanted to know more about the project to an information session held on 11 December 2018.  Further to this information session Council has provided community members, with concerns about the project, the opportunity to brief Councillors directly. 

Council has also established a project reference committee for ongoing consultation which met for the first time on 6 February. This meeting was a productive and positive meeting.

For your information a timeline of events for clarity. 

21 February 2018 – Council issued media release on the bus interchange relocation and conversation of roundabout into singalised intersection which was featured on our website and social media channels  

30 November 2018 – Letters were given to residents and businesses in the area advising of community information session on December 11 2018, Oneon-one consultations with project managers was also provided 

7 December 2018 – Council issued media release to inform the wider public of the information session on December 11 2018 which was featured on our website and social media channels 

11 December 2018 – Community Information Session held at Bourchier St Primary School for residents and businesses to speak to project leaders 

18 December 2018 – Water Main tender awarded at Council Meeting 

06 February 2019 – The first project reference committee meeting 

08 February 2019 – Council issued media release advising of water main works to commence to allow for the intersection to be upgraded into traffic light signals. 

Was the Shepparton Saleyards consulted regarding the above prior to December 7, 2018? Was Shepparton High School consulted prior to December 7, 2018?

Council is the owner of the Shepparton Regional Saleyards facility. The manager of the Saleyards was consulted during the Traffic Study to determine the function and impact of the intersection upgrade relevant to the saleyard operations.

Shepparton High School’s relationship to the intersection project is in regard to the relocation of the bus interchange. PTV and the Department of Education were key contributors in the decision to relocate the bus interchange to Shepparton High. Shepparton High was also consulted during the traffic study for the intersection.

Is council concerned that many residents and businesses impacted by the redeveloped claim the first they were aware of the development was the announcement in December?

Council made its intention to convert the intersection to a signalised intersection known through various public platforms including media releases and its website. As above refer Shepparton News articles February 2018.  Council recognises that not all residents may have been aware of this project however the consultation that has occurred since Council initiated direct contact with residents, business owners and organisations in the area in December has provided the opportunity for input and has already provided valuable input to the project that has directly addressed a number of concerns raised. The reference committee is an effective method of providing community input to the project and its implementation. It should be noted that this intersection is the last of several already completed stages to upgrade Verney Rd. 

How does council reconcile the complaints of businesses and residents that they were not consulted with its Community Engagement Strategy? Does council believe it followed its Community Engagement Strategy with regards to the above project?

Council considers that it has complied with relevant components of the Engagement Strategy, however with any consultation there are often key learnings that can inform future processes.

What is the purpose of the ‘Project Reference Committee,’ in light of the short time-frame between the December announcement and stated early 2019 commencement of the project?

The purpose of the Project Reference Committee is to provide suggestions and have input regarding the upgrade works at the Verney Road-New Dookie Road-Hawdon Street-Balaclava Road intersection. This includes providing feedback on Council’s proposed design amendments addressing community concerns and feedback on the impacts of construction staging and methodology. The first meeting of this Committee occurred last week and the

meeting was productive and positive and the feedback we received from those at the meeting indicated that it was a positive initiative and that there was general support for the process.

Why is only one family member or business owner/staff member allowed to attend the committee?

To ensure the Committee is effective and productive whilst providing a place for each interested family or business the chance to be represented.

Why are attendees required to sign an agreement? Why does the agreement contain a confidentiality clause? Under what law is the agreement enforceable?

The agreement provides confidence to Committee members that they can express their opinions without being concerned that others, whom they may not know outside of this forum, will use that information to serve other motives. It also allows Council staff more freedom to workshop solutions with the group for further investigation. It also assists in keeping community messages regarding the project consistent and accurate and avoids unnecessary angst.

Can The Shepparton News attend the next committee meeting? If not, why not?

Happy to talk further with you regarding this request

What is the projected cost of the upgrade? What is the projected time-frame for the upgrade?

The complete upgrade and associated works is estimated to cost in the order of $5M and is to be delivered over the coming 12 months.

If businesses are forced to relocate because the upgrade renders their current site unsuitable, will they be compensated?

Council does not consider the works will result in valid claims for compensation, however has advised that if anyone believes they are entitled to compensation as a result of the works they should seek independent advice and submit a formal claim.

If residents suffer a depreciation in the value of their home because of the upgrade, will they be compensated?

As above.