Last week I published three posts on local business issues and decisions made about them by the City of Yarra. After publishing the first two (about outdoor heaters and Polyester’s manga sign on Brunswick St) I emailed every City of Yarra councillor and CCd in CEO Andi Diamond asking them to read the posts with the hope that they would respond to them. I received emails from mayor Alison Clarke and Diamond that also addressed the third issue (cafe outdoor tables on side streets).
I’m going to quote from these emails to examine the council’s response to the three issues. With each issue, illogical decision making has been made worse by atrocious communications failings. There are two patterns in these situations: first, incompetent decision making by unelected bureaucrats that is not overseen and managed by elected councillors; and second, council’s inability to communicate effectively about its actions and their consequences.
Diamond did not comment on this issue. In her first email, Clarke stated:
Regarding the heaters and blankets issue, this was a very small effort (less than $2 per week per business using outdoor heaters to heat the public domain) to encourage less energy wastage and greenhouse emissions, and promote more sustainable alternatives. It is still something of a mystery to me why so many people got so worked up about it [emphasis added]; even the traders said the money was immaterial, and there were no plans to force anyone to use blankets, merely encouragement for them to be offered in more places than at present.
Clarke acknowledges that the cost of the heater tax was completely ineffective in changing trader behaviour. The plan failed. It was obvious to most observers that this was inevitable.
I suggest that people got worked up about it because it seemed to be another example of illogical bureaucratic meddling that had no chance of achieving its intended outcome of discouraging heater use and thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In her first email, Diamond states:
In relation to your article about Polyester Books, I accept your criticism of Council’s handling of this matter.
I can confirm that Council has recently given permission to the book shop to use the footpath sign with the original image.
As you note, it is not clear what role – if any – Councils are to play in following up complaints that have been upheld by the Advertising Standards Board. In the absence of a defined role, Council officers felt a responsibility to try to resolve the situation.
We can but learn from these experiences. If a similar situation arose again, we would probably just write to the business, relaying the ASB’s concerns, but take no further action.
In her first email, Clarke says:
The Polyester issue was only brought to Councillors’ attention after it became an issue because staff had taken it up with the shop and the Advertising Standards Board had gotten involved… As far as I am concerned, if an image is legal it is none of council’s business to ask that it be changed or removed.
Diamond and Clarke acknowledge that council acted without lawful authority in this matter. In response, I wrote to Clarke:
Given that you appear to be conceding that a council staff member acted well beyond their authority in the Polyester matter, what are you going to do to check that such misbehaviour is not repeated? Don’t you have a legal team that could be consulted about such uncertain matters before you decide how to act?
I also wrote to Diamond:
What responsibility do you take for the unethical behaviour of the council officer in the Polyester situation? Why have you not issued a public apology to the business for the council’s obstructive conduct?
Clarke responded by saying:
The CEO is responsible for managing staff and dealing with any mistakes they make, and I have full confidence that she is tackling both the Polyester issue and the inaccurate letter re trading in side streets.
Diamond responded by stating:
I think you and I are going to need to differ on our perspective on the matters at hand.
So Clarke shifted the blame to Diamond and Diamond refused to comment. This is pathetic and inexcusable. How hard is it to say sorry? Don’t they understand the public relations disaster they have created for themselves by not taking responsibility for their behaviour and acknowledging their failings?
Cafe tables on side streets
In her first email, Diamond states:
I assure you that Council has no intention whatsoever of stopping cafes from having tables and chairs in side streets. What we will be doing in coming weeks is developing a policy to determine how we assess applications from businesses wanting to use new kerb extensions. There is likely to be no change in arrangements for businesses who use existing kerb extensions, unless in isolated cases where there is a clear need for safety or accessibility reasons to remove some tables and chairs.
A Council officer did write to a local business in April, incorrectly stating that it was Council’s intent to return these areas to “public space” over the next few years. That advice was incorrect as it is certainly not Council’s position. Council officers will be writing to the relevant businesses in coming days to apologise for providing this incorrect advice.
As for the issue of outdoor seating on side streets, the newspaper article may be incorrect, but if so why have you not issued a press release to correct the record? The story is now 4 working days old. A competent PR team would have corrected that within 4 hours.
Diamond’s only response to this was the obfuscation above. In her second email, Clarke avoids the issue altogether and instead tries to blame the Melbourne Times Weekly for not acting as the council’s PR agency:
There have been errors in both this week’s and last week’s reports in The Melbourne Times Weekly. Last week I wrote to them correcting the report alleging council has decided not to implement outdoor smoking bans (the consultation about this is still occurring) and they did not print my letter. They have had a great deal of staff turnover at TMTW lately but we have made it extremely clear to them that we are not happy about the recent mistakes.
Since when has any rational person trusted a Fairfax newspaper to report facts? That’s why the City of Yarra has a website and a communications team – to communicate with. An organisation the size of the City of Yarra could be expected to be publishing news in various forms on a daily basis, yet their press releases are sporadic.
A lack of communication
In her second email Clarke said:
I assure you that we have no intention of attempting to hide mistakes when they happen, and that we are working hard both to make and implement good decisions and to communicate about them.
This is simply not true. As I have pointed out, the council has not issued an apology to Polyester and has not issued a press release correcting the issue of the outdoor tables on side streets.
In my response to Diamond’s first email I said:
You seem to be missing the point that businesses and residents get more information about the City of Yarra’s decisions from the media than from the City of Yarra. You’re obviously not in control of your communications. You’ll continue to embarrass yourself until this is fixed.
The council behaves as if these are private issues between itself and these individual businesses. However, once the issues become public knowledge, they become public issues. The council fundamentally fails to understand this and to respond accordingly.
Writing to the businesses privately to apologise and inform them of changed decisions is not enough. It should be explaining to the businesses and to the public what it is doing. Council should be responding to these public issues in a public way – by speaking directly to the public via its website.
In my response to Clarke I said:
The issue of council staff acting in error has again occurred in relation to the recent article in the local newspaper about whether side street outdoor tables would be banned. There seems to be a pattern here.
There is another pattern in how the council responds – ungraciously and unwilling to admit to wrongdoing. Polyester deserve a public apology. Your failure to respond to the apparently incorrect story about the outdoor tables has caused considerable consternation, which you brought on yourself by not issuing a response in a timely manner.
That you admit to not understanding the community response to the heater issue is further evidence you and the rest of council simply do not understand the impact of your decisions on the community you claim to represent, and how they are communicated.
These situations are as much a failure of communications as decision making.
I am particularly disappointed with Clarke’s responses. As the mayor she is supposedly responsible for providing leadership to the council, yet all she offers are excuses. The nasty deal between the ALP and Greens that ensured councillors from the two parties would annually rotate the mayorship has resulted in a mayors not being appointed on merit.
In her first email she provides some irrelevant PR spin:
This Council has been much complimented for our responsiveness to the local community, our ability to make things happen, our open and well-conducted meetings and our ability to work across political differences for the good governance of Yarra. There are many other Councils where the same cannot be said.
I wasn’t trying to compare the City of Yarra to other local governments, so this is irrelevant. In her second email I got more criticism of the media:
Unfortunately the media is more interested in looking for bad news than good e.g. Today I had lunch with the graduates of our river replanting project in Richmond, where 10 long-term unemployed people replanted 4 km of the Yarra’s banks with native vegetation, gaining certificate 2 qualifications in horticulture.
Is this meant to compensate for causing local businesses to worry that they may go bankrupt? Is this meant to reassure residents and ratepayers that their favourite cafes are not being unjustly obstructed from trading? I don’t think so. This vacuous indifference only makes it worse.