Deadline looms for Darebin Council with public open space still at risk at Ruthven and Lakeside
[First published on Facebook 13 August 2016]
The community has been campaigning to save two important parcels of land for public open space in Reservoir. The former Ruthven Primary School is in the northwest corner of the municipality where there is a lack of parkland. The former Lakeside Secondary College includes 1.8ha which is frontage on the Merri Creek in an area of environmental and recreational significance. After many failed attempts by council to have the land gifted to it by the State Government, on 6 June 2016 it finally committed to purchasing the properties for community use. Unfortunately, there is a looming deadline which may disrupt this plan. On 21 September 2016 the Darebin Council will enter into its caretaker period and may not be in a position to sign off on any new land acquisitions. A valuation of the land which is required for audit purposes will not be complete until around the end of this month. This leaves a very short window of opportunity to finalise the sale before it is out of the hands of the current council. We can only hope that draft contracts have been prepared in readiness for a signature when the price is settled. Community attendance at the council meeting on 5 September 2016 @ 7pm (2nd floor, 350 High Street, Preston) is needed to encourage a fast settlement of the matter and to ensure that council continues to be held to account. Why I won’t be meeting with the Mayor and CEO The following narrative explains why I sought a number of documents under Freedom of Information and have lodged a complaint about Darebin Council with the Victorian State Ombudsman. It also explains why I will not accept an invitation to meet with the Mayor and CEO. Under Freedom of Information I was able to obtain a copy of a letter which proves that the Department of Treasury and Finance wrote to the Darebin CEO offering council first right of refusal for the land on 2 September 2015.
Extract from letter received by the Darebin CEO on 2 September 2015 (source: FOI) Because council did not respond to this correspondence within 60 days the land was put into the government's Fast Track rezoning process. This is a critical moment which has led to virtually every subsequent meeting, motion, question and letter about the matter. Council was sent a meeting invitation on 13 April 2016 regarding the public consultations on the rezoning process (source: FOI). That is the second very important letter which council disregarded, leaving residents unrepresented at the Fast Track consultation meeting at Keon Park on 2 May 2016 . When Terry Mason and I asked direct questions about why council didn’t respond to these two letters a number of councillors and officers have been evasive and some have tried to shift the entire blame for the pending rezoning and proposed public sale of the land onto the State Government. I lodged a formal complaint with the Victorian State Ombudsman in early June 2016 due to concerns about a range of actions taken (or not taken) by council in relation to the land, and also actions which stifled public participation in public question time. That investigation is well underway and has been made public - not by me - but by the Mayor at a council meeting on 1 August 2016: “The above 2 questions and responses will also be provided to the Victorian Ombudsman (sic) office as part of Council’s response to their similar enquiry in relation to public question time and the former Ruthven Primary School and Lakeside Secondary College. I and the CEO also invite you to come into Council and have a meeting to discuss these sites with us” [Extract from Council Minute no.299, 1 August 2016]. After consideration I have decided that there is nothing that will be achieved by having such a meeting at this time. I am concerned about the perceptions which might arise if I did attend given that the State Ombudsman is investigating my complaint. Negotiations for the land are also underway and are confidential so there is nothing I can be told beyond what is already on the public record. I note in passing that the Minister for Local Government, Hon. Natalie Hutchins, MP, started an investigation into secrecy and accountability in all Victorian councils earlier this year. A rather patronising letter from council was sent to me last week, more than two months after I wrote to the CEO, apparently after the State Ombudsman’s office queried council’s lack of response:
Extract from letter dated 8 August 2016 from Darebin Council to Serena O'Meley Terry Mason and I can assure the council bureaucrat who wrote this letter - which also indignantly describes my inquiries to council as “extensive, repeated and complicated” - that we are indeed lobbying the State Government vigorously and respectfully (perhaps even unrelentingly) over the matter. The difference is that the State Government appears to be trying very hard to do the right thing in relation to the sale of the land, while many in the community have lost faith in their council. We became involved with this campaign relatively recently, but for hundreds of residents it has dragged on for three and a half distressing years. So the message we have for Darebin Council is a simple one: just get the negotiations done so everyone can move on. We would much rather be participating in public consultations and planning for a beautiful park at the Ruthven site and working with Friends of Merri Creek on their brilliant campaign to save grasslands pollinated by the Blue Banded Bee on land which includes Lakeside. That’s why we and the community are fighting so hard to keep both parcels of land in public hands - for the sake of the future.