Just who is running Council?

Ingrid Jackson

Former councillor Ingrid Jackson

The people of Noosa Shire have had two surprises in recent times. First, staff proposed a Conservation Park within the river as part of the draft Noosa River Plan and now a pop-up People’s Park emerged to replace the Noosa Heads Surf Club car park.

Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed agendas for the Council Services and Organisation Committee getting shorter and shorter. There has been no explanation for this from the council staff who compile the agendas and who are charged with ensuring that it is elected Councillors who make decisions on major operational matters. The agendas also have fewer progress reports to inform Councillors. Both trends indicate a weakening of the Council’s accountability to the people of the Shire.

The sudden appearance of the People’s Park was not part of an integrated transport, traffic and parking plan. Neither was it part of the Council-approved Transport Strategy, developed after much deliberation by Councillors and two rounds of public consultation.

The removal of 42 parking spaces next to the Surf Club for a pop-up park was very odd, especially at the peak of the summer visitor season. Such a decision could have been predicted to attract public comment and controversy. But it did not appear on any Council meeting agenda. The decision must have been made by Council staff, fine public servants but not elected and not accountable to residents.

So how was the People’s Park decision made? Perhaps Councillors were consulted at a backroom workshop. But the law forbids making Council decisions behind closed doors, so if Councillors were asked to decide, that would have been a breach.

The real explanation probably lies in the rules that allow councils to operate smoothly. The Council formally delegates many decision-making powers to the CEO, who for example can authorise expenditure of up to $1 million on contracts. But acting in good faith with the community should see significant matters brought for decision at open Council meetings.

As ‘carpark becomes people’s park’ stories began to circulate in the Shire, there was an outbreak of public comment, mostly critical of the People’s Park.

“It is literally the dumbest idea I’ve seen put into action since I moved here,” stormed one of hundreds of commentators on the Noosa Community Notice Board. “Why at this time of the year, would you take away 42 prime car spaces to create a sweltering-hot bitumen picnic area metres away from one of Australia’s most beautiful beaches? Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up!”

The official Council website offers this explanation, “Pop-up parks are being used across the globe and locally to return parking spaces to the people in highly pedestrianised areas.” An attempt at justification argues that the car park was being transformed to help manage vehicle and people movements.

Noosa Council CEO Larry Sengstock explained in a Noosa Today article (‘Park stirs public’, 5 January 2024), “This trial is among a number of options to help alleviate traffic issues and look to create a better flow of traffic while minimising vehicles waiting for carparks.” Mr Sengstock did not explain exactly how this would be achieved by the pop-up park.

There is no question that issues of traffic, transport and parking need to be addressed around the Hastings Street precinct. It’s an issue the Council has resolutely side-stepped for many years. On 3 January – the first sunny day after Christmas torrential rain storms – traffic was backed up from Hastings Street, all the way up Noosa Hill and beyond Pinaroo Park. Of course, removing 42 parking spaces is not going to solve problems like this. What is needed is an integrated traffic, parking and transport solution, such as was recommended in the 2017 Noosa Transport Strategy. As happens too often with the Council’s strategies, the Transport Strategy has never been implemented. Meanwhile, ad hoc initiatives solve little.

Meanwhile, the Council’s CEO and other staff are made to front the media whenever there is controversy. Councillors never face the press to explain what is being done or to accept responsibility.

It is time for Noosa Councillors to insist that all significant decisions be made by them in the open forum of the Council chamber. It is time for Councillors to uphold their duty to conduct Council business transparently and to take responsibility for their decisions.