Citizens' jury to decide future of Geelong democracy

By David Donaldson

July 13, 2016

Geelong City Council will be redesigned with help from a citizens’ jury of 100 residents, the Victorian government announced this week.

Colourful Geelong mayor Darryn Lyons and the rest of the council were sacked earlier this year after an inquiry, headed by former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Terry Moran, which found there had been a “failure to provide good government to the city”.

Independent group newDemocracy Foundation — which has also conducted citizens’ juries in South Australia, Melbourne and for VicHealth — will select the jury and oversee the process, bringing together a representative but random sample of 100 citizens.

The jury will be asked to consider:

  • how the mayor is elected;
  • if a deputy mayor is needed and how they are elected;
  • the number of councillors;
  • representative structures (such as whether the municipality is divided into wards, and if so, whether they are multi-member wards).

The jury will come up with two sets of recommendations for Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins. One will need to fit within the existing framework of the Local Government Act, allowing changes to be put in place before the next Geelong council election in October 2017.

The other would be unbound by the current act, comprising a wishlist for future reform. The minister has indicated she would use these “aspirational” recommendations to inform discussions with the parliament and subsequently provide a response. The Victorian government is currently reviewing the legislation and is seeking submissions on its proposed directions paper.

The Geelong process will also include wider consultations to allow all residents to have their say on the future of the city, which will form a part of jury deliberations. The jury’s recommendations will be public and the minister will report back to the jury in person once the government has considered their ideas.

NewDemocracy Foundation also plans to include the voices of individuals who have held elected office in Geelong in the past decade, by including them in the stakeholder briefing stage.

The government hopes that asking the people of Geelong how their council should be reformed will avoid a repeat of the problems that led to the dismissal of Lyons and his fellow councillors, according to Minister Hutchins.

“The last council failed to deliver good governance — and a citizens’ jury will help ensure that does not happen again,” she said.

The newDemocracy Foundation says citizens’ juries can build greater trust in the political process:

“Our aim is to deliver a response from the community where people feel ownership of the solution proposed to the minister. If this decision falls within parameters the government sees as acceptable the effective ‘sharing’ of the decision should engender greater trust in its implementation.”

Following the sacking of the mayor and council in April, Geelong is currently being run by three administrators: former City of Melbourne CEO Dr Kathy Alexander, former chair of the Geelong Authority Peter Dorling and former senior government executive Laurinda Gardiner. They took over from ex-Victorian government department boss Yehudi Blacher, who acted as interim adminstrator.

The citizens’ jury project will operate from July to December 2016.

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