PATRICIA & DON EDGAR. The Farce Called ‘Community consultation’.

Yarra City Council touts community consultation as part of its resident-friendly credentials. But our recent experience suggests the process is a farce. It demonstrates why public disillusionment with government and a bureaucratic process is at an all time high for transparency is completely lacking.

Our consultation concerned a permit for a popular night spot, Bimbo Deluxe in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, governing the extension of hours for the sale and consumption of liquor, the number of patrons permitted entry, the Noise and Amenity Action Plan and ‘the management of patrons who do not respect the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood’. Bimbo Deluxe was forced to close after a fire late last year and that closure has given the neighbourhood blessed relief from the noise, filth and hooliganism associated with the venue. Management there does not have a good track record for working in harmony within a community where food and entertainment venues sit side by side with long-term residences.

It is not uncommon for Bimbo patrons to urinate or vomit on our footpath, leave food rubbish and countless cigarette butts in gutters that management then sweeps away from their adjacent gutters to accumulate outside our homes.

Filthy bins stand for days blocking the footpath on a corner where cars sweep around. It’s a dangerous mix as pedestrians, including young families, are forced onto the road.  Rowdy, sometimes screaming clients leave the nightclub late at night, revving cars. Noise is a significant issue. Neighbours complain of thumping loud music and racket from kitchen plant on the roof which keeps them awake at night.

We fronted up to the consultation (along with some 15 other local residents) to put our view about Bimbos’ management’s track record of indifference to complaints and argue for Yarra City Council to set tighter conditions on its future operation. Attending residents were treated with disdain, disinterest and directions to shut up. It was clear to all objectors that nothing we said would make a difference. We later learned there had been two prior secret meetings with the applicant for which no minutes were made available. We are evaluating our options to gain access to these documents under Freedom of Information.

The ‘consultation’ with objectors was held in the cavernous meeting room at Richmond Town Hall which had a hopelessly inadequate sound system.

The Chairman, Cr. Daniel Nguyen, if he was listening to the proceedings, fooled us completely. He was however very interested in asserting his authority. Don Edgar was called to order mid-sentence and told to address the Chair, not the applicant. Fair enough. But he was also told his comments were ‘history’, ‘the past is the past’ and Council was looking to the future. The track record of Bimbos’ management was not considered relevant to the planning application. Later another objector who spoke rationally and quietly for his allocated five minutes was ordered to leave the table for ‘disrespecting the Chair’. Like a naughty schoolboy he was sent to the back of the room because he made a comment after his allocated five minutes. This was insulting treatment meted out by the Chairman to an adult ratepayer raising genuine concerns.

Attention was given to the noise that would emanate from the roof deck and the 78 patrons congregating there, but any noise from drunken patrons waiting to enter or on leaving the premises was not considered relevant. The Council planners had not done a proper sound audit and had not notified any neighbours in adjacent Kerr St, which backs onto the Bimbos’ rooftop bar, of the application. This omission they said was ‘an oversight’. They took no account of noise from the kitchen plant which disturbs Rose St neighbours just a few metres from some houses. They seemed not to have visited the location, just to have studied maps and applied an arbitrary ‘distance from the source of noise’ instead. The efficacy of this approach was not questioned.

The Mayor, Cr Danae Bosler, commented patronisingly that she too lived near a ‘lively’ late-night venue, but ‘often saw Council inspectors monitoring the streets’, so we should be assured that everything would be alright. We were not. She also suggested that ‘in future’, we should study the documents prior to the hearing and make recommendations so that Councillors didn’t have to make the hard decisions. (We had assumed that, as our paid elected representatives, that was their job.) These complex documents – some hundreds of pages – were sent out five days prior to the meeting allowing no time to obtain professional advice. But we did our best. The resident who had spent most time on this challenging exercise was banished to the rear of the hall for ‘disrespecting the Chair’.

The Sub-committee members then consulted among themselves and made a ruling in favour of Bimbo Deluxe, with no clear conditions set for appropriate noise control or patron supervision.

When the meeting closed Patricia Edgar approached the Deputy Mayor, Cr Misha Coleman, to clarify why crowd management outside the premises was not considered relevant to the application. ‘What is your involvement?’ she was asked. ‘I am a resident, Don’s wife. He spoke earlier.’ ‘Hello Don’s wife!’ she replied airily.

She confirmed that vomiting, urinating, screaming out, revving cars, smashing the odd glass and bottle in the gutter were police matters not relevant to the Permit and she would send Patricia a letter (yet to be received) with a number to call the police in future. Or she could call the liquor licensing authority. Not interested in any further discussion, the Deputy Mayor fobbed Patricia off; she had other things to do.

A notice of decision to grant a permit has now been issued by Yarra Council which does not address most of the issues raised. The residents have met to consider an appeal to VCAT – a time-consuming and potentially costly business.

So much for our local government’s community consultation process: Yarra City Council members displayed arrogance, indifference and rudeness. Theirs is a flawed process run by heavily conflicted people indifferent to the concerns of its ratepayers. We can only assume this farce is repeated week after week in communities around the State.

Patricia Edgar and Don Edgar are sociologists and residents of Fitzroy. 

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Patricia Edgar is an educator. She was the architect of the Australian Children’s Television Standards, the founder of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation.

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