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City council's new year's resolution: fewer immediate backflips

Analysis

The Adelaide City Council’s weird, double-dip decision-making process has done as much to make the organisation look wildly inconsistent as has any of its councillors, writes Bension Siebert.

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Premier Jay Weatherill was very alarmed, mid-2015, when the city council proposed to kick food trucks out of Adelaide’s city squares, and to increase licence fees and restrictions on mobile food vendors.

A few months later, the council earned praise from Weatherill for striking a “compromise” that would see more food trucks, not fewer, operate in city squares – although vendors would have to pay higher licence fees, and fewer licences would be available overall.

That goodwill evaporated the following week, when the council decided to add a new restriction, limiting the number of food trucks operating in the CBD at any one time to 10*.

As a result, an “extremely disappointed” Weatherill threatened to intervene and, by mid-2016, his Government had introduced legislation to strip all councils of their major powers over food truck regulation.

The episode is one of several in the recent history of the city council – its wild vacillations on Frome Street bikeway and Fringe venue the Royal Croquet Club also spring to mind – where it has endorsed a position one week, then performed a near-complete backflip the following week.

This pattern is often caused not by councillors constantly changing their mind, but by the council’s bizarre practise of debating and deciding on almost every issue twice.

The way the system has worked is that a council committee debates an issue one Tuesday evening and votes to “recommend” a decision to a “full council meeting” the following week.

This recommendation is, fairly I believe, reported in the media as an “agreement” or “endorsement” of a particular course of action.

But all councillors are members of these committees and, in essence, the process amounts to councillors recommending a decision to their future selves.

If there’s a backflip to be performed, most of the time it isn’t because an individual councillor changes her or his mind, but because one or two councillors who were absent from the committee meeting turn up to the full council meeting the following week.

It’s confusing for the public – which is left believing councillors are more inconsistent than they actually are – and damaging to the council’s reputation for good governance.

Fortunately, for that reputation at least, this process will be abandoned in the new year.

From early 2017, formal committee meetings will be suspended to allow councillors and their staff to publicly discuss issues in an informal, roundtable “workshop”.

No “recommendations” will be made: decisions will only occur at the full council meeting, once a fortnight.

Council CEO Mark Goldstone describes the new process as “ground-breaking”; a “fundamental change” that would result in “clarity for the community”.

Certainly, the process is better.

Whether it will result in better decisions is yet to be seen.

*After much confusion and the commissioning of legal advice, it was later concluded that the decision actually limited the number of food trucks on city streets to 20.

Bension Siebert reports on the council for InDaily.

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