Image for Conversation with a Councillor

Damon Thomas is the latest addition to the Hobart City Council, and the only change of face in the last election, replacing John Freeman.

Thomas didn’t need a prompt to start talking.

‘If people don’t get involved in local government they can’t complain later. Trite, but true.’

Thomas bemoaned the general lack of local print media coverage of planning or any other issues and particularly of the election. He pointed out the lack of profiling of candidates or coverage of the campaign.

‘No wonder there was such a low number of candidates and voters.  It’s understandable that the Council might say yes to mandatory voting.’

‘Council affects important parts of our daily lives – and if people don’t care about it then Council won’t care for them in the way they might expect it to.’

TT: Do you belong to a political party?

DT: No and I never have.  I think local government should be free of party politics.

TT: Do you think there should be a fixed number of consecutive terms for aldermen?

DT: My first thought is yes to that. It would allow for refreshment and renewal. If you looked at it as being akin to a private board – well four to six years is about it. Eight years for exceptional contributors. Well, even twelve years for significant achievers. People would know when it was time to move on, and do so.

TT: I can see that you might want to keep someone good – but how would you get rid of someone who wasn’t, didn’t acknowledge it and didn’t move on?

DT: I don’t know yet.  I’ll develop a clearer set of benchmarks on this over the next couple of years – something to address a councillor who is past their use by date. There needs to be evolution of people, of ideas.

Thomas believes, based on his experience as Ombudsman, that most complaints and dissatisfaction with government bodies spring from failures in communication.

‘In the 15 bus-stop sequence of a complaint’s progress, most could have been dealt with at Bus Stop 8. But they drag on to the 15th, by which time individuals have been wounded. Then they become exclusively focussed on their grievance and it becomes destructive.’

‘As Ombudsman, I was the little person’s friend. Now I am the community’s friend.

If you show me a problem I like to look at it laterally, to find the solution.’

TT: With a background in law, administration and business do you think you can bring your skills to bear on the Hobart City Council, given what you’ve seen of how it operates?

DT: I predict some close decisions.

TT: On the Battery Point foreshore walkway?

DT: Possibly. My preference there is for a well designed scramble track. There are legal, heritage, visual and construction problems that would render a built walkway of any sort a significant expense. 

But, despite my negative gut reaction, on having looked at the foreshore, I would assess it, if it came to Council, with an open mind. I have to.

As with anything, I need to listen to business, to residents and to environmental groups to see what is acceptable and make decisions on the best available evidence.

TT: What do you see as the main function of Council?

DT: Well, things like municipal roadworks and stormwater issues will always be there - and I do believe in shared services. But overall, I think Council will always be closer to citizens needs than any other model of government.

For Hobart city, I think renewed vitality is essential. With around 950 traders – that’s everyone doing business in the city – we don’t have a real idea of the current level of confidence among them.
We need a barometer of business confidence, a base-line study of business and employment intent and of succession planning. With that we can respond to deal creatively, for instance, with issues such as safety in the city.

TT: Last question – What are your thoughts on the Hobart waterfront?

DT: The Sullivans Cove Waterfront Authority has had few successes in its time. The experiment has failed. Council deserves to have the area back. It looked after that precinct for 160 years – so why not?  It’s as if we’re in our own house – but can’t get out to the front porch. It’s locked off – which means lop-sided development between the city and the foreshore. It’s time the waterfront came back to Council.