Aisha Dow, City Reporter for The Age
You might describe it as Melbourne City Council’s version of jury duty, except it is far easier to get out of.
A panel of 43 “everyday” Melburnians will advise council on how it should spend its money for the next 10 years, when the randomly selected group is given unprecedented access to the municipality’s financial books and experts.
In a Victorian first, 7500 letters have been sent out to randomly selected business owners, residents and students asking them to be part of a “People’s Panel”. The names of those who want to participate will be put into a ballot to decide the final team.
The $150,000 project is being run by independent research group the newDemocracy Foundation, which has run smaller projects around the country including in the inner-western suburbs of Sydney.
The group’s executive director, Iain Walker, said when armed with all the information, juries of citizens had come to very “sensible” decisions.
“We had citizens come back in Canada Bay and say ‘mow the parks less often’,” Mr Walker said.
He said when given the information the residents realised, although they loved the parks, they could save money by mowing them less often and use the extra cash on something else.
Darebin Council, in Melbourne’s inner north, is also in the process of allowing a citizen’s jury to decide how to spend $2 million worth of capital works. But the Melbourne panel will advise councillors on a far bigger spend – a whopping $4 billion over 10 years.
Cr Stephen Mayne said the project would mean that the “silent majority” would have a much bigger say on future spending, as opposed to the usual suspects of individuals and lobby groups who often strive to defend the status quo.
“This casts aside all the squeaky wheels,” he said. “It doesn’t allow people to use a megaphone to dominate conversations.
“It’s genuinely sweeping that all aside and really well informing a group in the community and letting them come back with a fresh set of eyes.”
Victorian Local Governance Association chief executive Andrew Hollows said advertising a budget through the normal channels might allow councils to meet their compliance obligations. But he believes councils need to have a “deeper” conversation with their residents.
Dr Hollows said there was a growing appetite for innovative community consultation as councils faced tough financial choices in the future.
Melbourne policymakers are facing particularly hard decisions as the city stares down a booming population and changing climate, says council chief executive Kathy Alexander.
“There’s no city in the world where it is business as usual anymore,” she said.
Those in Melbourne’s first “People’s Panel” will be paid $500 each for what is expected to be about 50 to 100 hours work. The makeup of the panel will be finalised in about a month, with the jury handing down their recommendations to councillors in November.
Everyone else can have their say through an online financial tool, which allows people to make their own 10-year budget.