Tonight I moved a Motion to give a group of residents their chance to be heard on an issue dear to them (new Street Trees in a section that has been kept free of plantings since 1905), and as a result, to also allow Council to clearly outline on its intent on new Street Tree plantings, under what is (in my view) an unclear Policy.
However, I struggled to even find another Councillor to second my Motion – no one willing to give these residents the chance to simply plead their case, nor to give Council the chance to clarify an issue it had not (in my view) made clear in its Policy. Those two things: the right to be heard, and clear, understandable rules, both go to the heart of our democratic process. Despite what a Councillor may think on the issue itself (eg planting of street trees on all verges), I believe it is fundamental that residents can put their issues before Council and have them considered, even if they ‘lose’ the vote. It was a shock to me that, in the end, only 1 out of 6 other Councillors was willing to support these resident’s right to simply be heard*. And then once the issue was able to be debated, that Council then resisted the opportunity to provide the much needed clarity on the Street Trees Policy, but “kicked in into touch” by deferring it for a month. [Note: It remains unaddressed].
Previously, the Street Tree Policy said, in the clearest terms, ‘no tree shall be removed unless it is dead or dangerous’. This did not stop residents regularly asking for their removal requests be put to Council for decision, with staff informing the resident that removal was not permitted by Policy, but agreeing to bring it before Council for decision anyway (where it invariably failed). As Council can override its own policy, it was proper that those previous requests were brought before Council, “to be heard”. However, tonight, when the Policy itself was (in my view) much less clear (it now has the additional words “the final decision will be made by the Manager of Engineering Services”, which to me clearly suggests more flexibility), 6 Councillors did not want to even discuss it (nor did staff want to even bring it before Council). This seems to me clearly at odds with the previous approach under a much clearer Policy. On top of that, Council tonight was also unwilling to clarify its policy to provide greater clarity. In effect, Council’s majority view was that the uncertainty created by its own Policy did not need correcting, and pleas under it can be ignored.
I continue to be concerned about what appears to me to be inconsistent decisions by Council like this. Clear, predictable and certain outcomes are vital to our society’s rule of law, but Council decisions seem to often apply different outcomes based on Councillor’s views on their merits, rather than consistency of decision-making reflecting Policy. Any system based on subjectivity rather than objectivity and consistency carries grave risks.
I’ll continue to stand up for residents right to be heard, and for clear Policy.
*PS Thank you to Cr Pyvis for seconding my Motion for the purposes of due debate, and Cr Thomas for being willing to as well, before being unable to attend.