The week starts and someone has tagged me in an online petition to get a basketball halfcourt for the kids of Lennox Head. Meanwhile I’ve got eight emails I still haven’t had time to respond to from residents in Cumbalum, who still don’t have a local shop, let alone a basketball halfcourt. I’m also getting strongly lobbied by a group of residents and business owners in Newrybar who warn that someone will get injured or worse if the parking situation isn’t sorted out.

One of the main duties as an elected Councillor is fielding requests from the public about the facilities they want in their communities, working out how to prioritise them and find the resources within Council’s limited budget. This is where things can get tricky, and people can become easily frustrated. Here are a few tips for advocating effectively within the local government system and making things happen for your community.

Know what local government does (and doesn’t do)

Some people describe Local Government as the ‘third tier’ of government in Australia, but its more accurately described as a facet of State Government. This is because it is governed by an Act of State Parliament (the Local Government Act 1993 of NSW). State Government delegates a range of functions to Local Councils, such as building regulations and development, public health, local roads and footpaths, parks and playing fields, libraries, local environmental issues, waste disposal, and some community services. Councils are ultimately accountable to State Government and in some cases can have their authority withdrawn if they are not doing what they should.

Once you understand the role of local government more broadly, it’s useful to understand what Ballina Shire Council might do (as opposed to other Councils). For example, some Councils do things like operating childcare centres and youth services, while others have a narrower “roads, rates and rubbish” mindset. The high-level parameters that guide Ballina Council’s work can be found in our Community Strategic Plan – this is the highest level strategy of Council that sets out its long-term vision and key objectives.

Understand the role of Councillors

Every week I get contacted by people about small things like we need more hand soap in the toilets, or the rubbish bins are full. Councillors pass these requests directly onto Council staff, who are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Council. If your request if for something that is an operational matter, its often easier to just report it directly to Council via the main office number or by emailing [email protected]

While staff are responsible for carrying out the work of Council, Councillors are responsible for setting its strategic priorities, including providing feedback into and endorsing plans, strategies and budgets. This is done through resolutions (decisions), which are made at Council meetings following an open debate, which is accessible to the public.

It's important to understand that Councillors are elected by their community, so their job is inherently political, even if they don’t represent a political party. An issue cannot be debated in a Council meeting (and a resolution sought) unless a Councillor brings a Notice of Motion to Council (or moves a recommendation made by staff). As each Councillor has their own values, beliefs and priorities, you may have to contact a number of different Councillors before you find someone willing to take up your cause.

Get to you know your plans

Council almost never makes ad hoc or piecemeal decisions about the provision of infrastructure, community facilities and open spaces. Rather, these decisions are guided by a range of strategic plans available on Council’s website. For example, footpaths are outlined in the Pedestrian Access and Mobility Plan (PAMP), bike paths can be found in the Bike Plan, playgrounds can be found in the Playground Upgrade and Management Plan (PUMP). Additionally, most of the Shire’s key open spaces (e.g. parks and reserves) each have their own Masterplan – an overarching plan that describes what will be included in that space.

These strategies and plans are the things that Council consults with the community on. Of course, most people don’t take interest until work begins (which can often be several years after the plan has been developed!), by which time it is difficult to make changes. While this array of plans can be overwhelming at first, if you have a project you want to see happen, it is essential that you understand where it fits as part of Council’s overall strategic priorities.

It needs to be in the delivery program, or it doesn’t get done

Once Council determines it priorities, they are scheduled in advance in a four-year Delivery Program, and a 12-month Operational Plan (which exist in a single document known as the DPOP). These documents outline the year in which the action will commence, and the amount of money allocated to it. Councillors agree on the DPOP in the months following the election, but priorities can change during their term if they think a project needs to be bought forward or moved back. It is very unlikely that a project will be inserted into Council’s DPOP, especially if it requires funding, so its important to engage in the community consultation process that happens during the development of the DPOP.

Remember that being a Councillor is not a full-time job

Councillors get paid a stipend of less than $20,000 per year after tax and often have to work full-time jobs as well as perform their Council duties, which involve countless meetings and briefings each month. So if your Councillor doesn’t always pick up phone or return emails immediately, try and be patient and understand that we are doing the best we can for our communities.