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The Last Meeting of the Gawler Town Council (2003-2006) - Reflections of Being a Local Government Councilor

Last Meeting: Out going Councillors, David Arandle (TET) and Ian Skewes. Photo by Deputy Mayor, Brian Thom taken at the end of the final meeting of Council.
Last Meeting: Out going Councilors, David Arandle (TET)
and Ian Skewes. Photo by Deputy Mayor, Brian Thom
taken at the end of the final meeting of Council.
I remember the last meeting of the previous Gawler Town Council. I was in the Public Gallery, having already been elected to the incoming council unopposed. This last meeting was a fairly moving experience as several councilors were given the opportunity to say a few final, outgoing words and at least one councilor was moving on after a personal loss.

In comparison, my last meeting of council was, well... lacking whatever it is that makes such a meeting special. 

The Mayor wasn't present (being on leave). There was no one in the public gallery (with the exception of one councilor's partner). Even the usual local press reporter arrived late. 

Perhaps the only thing to make this meeting memorable was that it is the first and only time the Deputy Mayor ever got to be Chairperson of a full council meeting in three and a half years.

One councilor made a last ditch effort to stir up a bit of controversy but chose the wrong time and issue to make any sort of impact beyond wasting everyone else's time with debate that should have been raised at committee level.

Only two councilors present hadn't re-nominated for the new council - one of them being myself. The other councilor made a request at some time (I don't know when) to say a few out going words - which were genuine and heart felt. I had thought about saying something too but in the end I felt it more appropriate to say nothing about the farce that I'd allowed my time on council to become.

Which may sound like harsh, self-criticism but really it is what it is. In three and a half years I contributed very little to debate, and almost certainly in the last two, I said virtually nothing at any meeting I attended.

[NB: Apologies for the length of this entry however summarizing three and a half years with a short article just wouldn't seem right. I hope you'll persevere and learn from my experience.]

I remember, before being elected, a story that was related to me. Once there had been a councilor who was elected and never said anything. The question was asked, "Why would you bother?" I'm sure, if people even remember my time on council at all, it will be as 'the councilor who never anything'.

It wouldn't be a true representation of my time, as I did try to contribute to discussion in the early days. Something I said at a meeting was even quoted by the press (to do with road side Tourism entry/marketing statements). I helped shape one of councils sporting grants so it could also be applied as an arts grant. I even spoke once or twice at a very intimidating public meeting to establish a business zone where it wasn't entirely welcome by residents and schools in the area. However these are brief moments of a spark that died after about the first year and a half of my term.

Prior to my election I did know what I was in for. I took the time to attend meetings and read agendas etc. I knew there would be many issues that wouldn't always be of interest to me in a personal sense but I would be expected to take an interest in.

Having been elected unopposed, I never really got a feel for who it was that I was representing. Although there are no 'wards' within Gawler, each councilor represents the entire area, councilors do have their own supporters. Usually you would get a sense of this from running an election campaign - which I never had to do. Consequently I never felt I was representing anyone other than myself.

My strength in being actively involved in my community is derived from what skills I can bring to an organization. Talking isn't one of my strong skills. I'm not good at thinking quickly or voicing an opinion on things I haven't had time to really consider. I'm especially not good at talking on issues that I'm struggling to even take an interest in because it is expected of me. It is for this reason that I never really felt like part of a team or never really found a niche to fill. Most of contributing to council is talking.

I'm proud to say that I read every agenda, cover-to-cover, for every meeting I attended however, in doing so I found very little opportunity to contribute in any way. I would find myself reading reports, trying to come up with questions I could ask just so it would appear that I was involved not because I actually had questions or wanted to know the answers.

Having attended virtually every meeting (I think I may have missed only one meeting in my whole term) I had a lot of time to observe what other councilors did. I wondered if I should take one or two other councilors lead by asking questions that were clearly answered in the reports but still they'd ask anyway? Or perhaps I should, like one councilor, launch into a monologue about what I would like to see happen five minutes after the meeting has clearly formulated a motion to do exactly that?

In the end I found that no matter what questions I could come up with, if I let the other councilors go first, they would invariably ask my questions for me. So I stopped trying to come up with questions.

Of those occasions where I did actually speak up, I had a brief run of seemingly speaking at the wrong opportunity. This occurred in two meetings relating to a now abandoned plan to completely rework and extend councils civic centre. The plan was supposed to include space to display community art. However when I tried to question details I was told the plan was an overview and we would talk about details later. Even when we got to a computer-generated model of the design it still wasn't the right time to talk detail. This frustrated me and did nothing for my confidence in expressing ideas. We never did get to talk detail.

There were probably a lot of things I could have done to be more successful as a councilor. I could have gone out and talked to people in the community more. Visited any number of community groups, of which Gawler has many. Even talked more with my fellow councilors and council staff (I remember one time, where I was standing with two other councilors near council's customer service desk. The person attending the desk, not knowing who I was, despite me having been a councilor for more than a year and a half, asked if I needed any help. One of the councilors actually introduced me to them upon witnessing their mistake).

However it's very hard to be a councilor when other aspects of your life are busy and/or failing. Apart from my well-documented struggle with depression (in this blog), my business has never really been very successful. Causing me to spend many years on unemployment benefit - which demands far more of your time attending job programs and the dreaded 'Work for the Dole'. At the same time you're trying to take an interest in the various community groups that you've signed up to as a representative of council. Participate in some aspect of their group. Finally for me, there was my continued commitment to the arts community to establish a community gallery in Gawler.

I don't want to bitch about these things - well I'd love to bitch about unemployment programs just a little bit because they contributed the most to my lack of interest in improving my position on council. February 2005 saw me and unemployment benefits part company. I've lost count of how many job programs I've participated in. They're supposed to develop your skills and increase your employment potential. For me it got to the point where I was attending simply to keep everyone's paperwork in order. I wasn't getting any benefit so I refused to attend. Naturally they refused to pay me any benefit so we parted company.

Anyone who has run a business knows it is a full time job. When you run a business that barely breaks even and doesn't earn enough to feed you for a month you look to other income sources to supplement what you do earn. Not receiving unemployment benefit meant that my councilor allowance was my only other source of regular income.

During my time on council two of my colleagues resigned, thus triggering a by-election about two years into our term. In hindsight I've often thought I should have also resigned at this time. However I wanted to complete what I signed up for, and I often thought about the joke you often hear as a councilor "...you wouldn't do this job for the money." Unfortunately that's pretty much all that kept me there until the end.

The by-election turned out to be another kick to my confidence. Having never really connected with my colleagues I thought some new people, who may also have difficulty settling in, might have helped in some way. I don't really know how? Perhaps I thought I'd be able to relate more to people who were also trying to find their niche in the group. Unfortunately (for me anyway) the two new councilors not only settled in quickly but also somehow connected with the rest of the council in a way I never had. That was very hard to come to terms with.

In a council meeting there are many standard motions that need to be passed as a matter of procedure. They're still quite important but it is rare that anyone ever votes against them, for example, 'acceptance of the previous minutes', or 'move the recommendations in items x to y subject to withdrawal'. To either move or second a motion you indicate this by raising your hand. Sometimes, just for a kind of in house joke, the Mayor or chairperson would name someone as mover or seconder to one of these motions who hadn't raised their hand to do so in a while. Quite often that would be me. I used to raise my hand for these but quite often wasn't picked so I just stopped doing it.

At my last committee meeting (not the final council meeting) I was getting picked to second almost every motion, and being encouraged to second actual recommendation motions as well. The minute secretary pointed out that, by the end of the night, I had seconded more motions than I had in her entire time as minute secretary (possibly about a year). Although I was happy to go along with the joke, later, reflecting upon that night, I felt I had been treated something like a four year old being encouraged to do something funny for the 'grown ups' entertainment. I was dreading that this joke might spill over into my final meeting but fortunately it only occurred once towards the end of the night.

As the final meeting came to a close the Deputy Mayor made a few statements of thanks and wished everyone luck with their election campaigns. Then, as per usual after full council meetings, light supper was bought in along with a bottle or two of the CEO's home made wine. It is at this point of every meeting that I get the biggest feeling of being an outsider in this group. Everyone gravitates towards whoever it is they enjoy talking to the most, forming little circles of conversation.

I stayed long enough for one final photo with my fellow outgoing councilor, wished the deputy mayor (who took the photo) luck with his campaign, before taking one final look at the groups of people talking. Then I walked out into the night so I could spend time walking around Gawler - just me with my thoughts, late in the evening. The end of three and a half years of being an Elected Member.

It's odd to me that a number of my colleagues were surprised at my decision not to re-nominate. However my decision can best be summed up by the idea that if I wouldn't vote for me, why should I expect anyone else to?

The hard truth is that I really don't care enough to take an active interest in everything that goes on in the town. I don't have the people skills to be a politician. Very few people do. Being a politician, even at local government level, is a tough job. Not because it is hard but because it is so varied. There is so much information coming at you that you need to make decisions about. It's a lot of stuff that you may have no personal interest in but you are expected to care about.

The deputy mayor quipped, just before I left, that he hoped "I'd learnt something from my time on council" and then followed that with saying that he "was sure I had" as if I didn't know much about how council's and politicians worked prior to my term.

I don't feel I learnt a whole lot. It's not unlike being a committee member of any Incorporated Community Group. It's just a bigger organization with a bigger book of rules. If you know how things work you can encourage almost any decision to go your way. All you have to do is make the effort to formulate a convincing argument. I never had to make the effort because, of the decisions that were important to me, I was always aware that the majority of my colleagues would support them - no need to argue the case.

I guess at this point, I'm starting to ramble... or maybe I've been rambling all along. I should finish up by pointing out that my fellow councilors and council staff did make efforts to include me. They're all great people and I have few complaints of substance (which is my way of saying they're not perfect but who is?). 

The way things worked out were the results of my actions (or lack of them). If I were to do this crazy thing over again I would do almost everything different. At least I would like to think so. Habits of a lifetime are hard to break. Believing that people may actually value my opinion and having the confidence to express it is hard to put into practice.

I've always thought I'd get into politics at some point. I just think I got into it too early in my life.

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