Community grants up to councillors

THE final decision-making process in settling community grants will still be up to our elected councillors and not just a panel of officers.

The result at yesterday’s Southern Downs Regional Council (SDRC) general meeting in Stanthorpe came after yet another failed motion and lengthy discussion into the new guidelines.

At last week’s committee meeting, Cr Mally McMurtrie was able to get the recommendation to adopt the new guidelines – which would see councillors stripped of the responsibility of deciding which organisations were awarded grants – approved.

Yesterday’s decision was far different.

While Cr Meiklejohn eventually moved the successful motion in line with the recommendation to approve the new guidelines, he made a number of key changes.

The most important of these changes was that the final decision-making process would still be up to councillors, who would be presented with two six-monthly reports to endorse before any grants were paid.

Mayor Ron Bellingham said he remained “firmly opposed” to the idea of a panel of officers deciding which organisations received grants.

“I fear this is a poison chalice and we will give it to a director and say ‘drink this’,” he said.

“I inherited a council that had some serious problems in relation to this sort of thing and one director suffered greatly.

“(Councillors) are here to take the political flak and we are charged to make those political decisions.”

Cr Bellingham said he did not have any problems with the officers, but said it was not their responsibility to make this decision.

Councillor Cameron Gow said he fully endorsed the mayor’s comments.

Cr Ross Bartley said after re-reading the guidelines between last week’s committee meeting and yesterday’s general meeting in Stanthorpe, he was still strongly opposed to the idea that councillors would not be as involved in the decision-making process – and was the only councillor to oppose the winning motion.

“I really don’t know why we’re going away from our existing system,” he said.

He said councillors’ local knowledge was vital to the success of the grants process.

However Deputy Mayor Peter Blundell said the new system would work better, because it would take the decision away from the councillors’ table.

“The process as described has a better opportunity of taking those biases (of councillors) out of the system,” he said.

Cr Denise Ingram agreed.

“I feel it would be a much fairer distribution with the officers instead of ourselves,” she said.

SDRC chief executive officer Rod Ferguson said, from an officer point of view, he was fine with either system.

“I’m open to it. It is important that the community has a right to apply for funding, there are clear guidelines, and the grants are decided in a fair and accurate way,” he said.

Cr Vic Pennisi was not happy with the idea of councillors losing the right to decide where the grants money went.

“I feel I represent the community out there and I feel there would be an expectation from them that there was some representation from us,” he said.

Cr Meiklejohn admitted he felt “some pressure” when it came for him to give his opinion, as his vote would ultimately decide which way the decision went.

Councillors eventually decided to approve a new system, which will see a panel of officers from the community services directorate divide up the funds. Before any funds are paid, however, this panel will deliver a confidential report to councillors for endorsement.

The first round will be called in August, with the second to open in February.

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